Turn To FrayIn a week in which we lost two great stalwarts of the folk scene it’s comforting to hear a young duo making such fine music as this. Hickory Signals are husband and wife duo Adam Ronchetti and Laura Ward from Brighton, assisted by Tom Pryor, who produced Turn To Fray, Scott Smith, Phil Ward, Deborah Stacey and Amy Squirrell.

Following two EPs, this is Hickory Signals’ debut full length recording. It’s an extraordinarily powerful work, sometimes painful, sometimes rather surreal and always absorbing but which, despite its depth, flashes by before you have really got to grips with it. It opens with an original song, ‘Rosemary’, based on the words of poet Rosemary Tonks. Actually most of the material is original but they follow on with the traditional ‘Who Put The Blood’, the familiar tale of fratricide. ‘Rosemary’ is the story of “a grieving widow’s only child” and, even though it’s not made explicit, you know that the interrogator of the murdering son is his mother. With Ward taking all the lead vocals Turn To Fray has a very feminine, not to say feminist, viewpoint.

‘Kana’ is about a Kurdish refugee and it’s a very angry song – “you’ve shown no light” is the concluding line but whether it is addressed to the people who destroyed Kana’s home or those who “welcomed” him to Britain is hard to say. ‘Two Girls’ is the oddly surreal story of a chance meeting on the road; not ‘Outlandish Knight’ but definitely outlandish and quite spooky as Ward’s flute weaves ‘The Cutty Wren’ through the song.

Frankie Armstrong’s ‘Doors To My Mind’ is a song whose time has come again and I’m convinced that I’ve heard someone else singing it recently. Originally recorded by Frankie in 1973, during what might be considered the first wave of feminism, we are every day being reminded that some attitudes haven’t changed much. Laura sings it simply and unaccompanied but it remains a rallying cry. There’s a setting of a verse by James Joyce, a song about Zelda Fitzgerald and the record closes with ‘Through Bushes And Through Briars’. Have you ever thought about the words of this song, particularly the third verse? You should.

Adam’s contributions, apart from his songwriting, include guitars, banjo, drums and shruti and the band’s guests include piano, slide guitar, violin, bass and cello. There’s a huge range of sounds from simple acoustic guitar to an almost orchestral band sound – sometimes within a single song – and that’s a part of what makes Turn To Fray so good.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://hickorysignals.com/

‘Two Girls’ – official video:

MIRIAM COOKE – Freefalling (First Night)

FreefallingA former fashion model turned archaeologist, actress, broadcaster, folk singer and, er baboon stylist, raised in an Irish farming community, Cooke trades in a very British acoustic folk pop with a voice that’s earned her comparisons to the young Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, Kate Bush and Sandy Denny, her songs exploring both the darkness and the light of contemporary life, variously shaded by harp, flute and cello with co-producer Nick Pynn variously on 5 string violin, mountain dulcimer and mandocello.

It opens with the title track which offers a musing on the state of the nation as, to a diametrically opposed gentle acoustic finger-picking melody, coloured by banjo, she sings “Food banks and bedroom tax, what century are we in?” although she’s already answered the rhetorical question in the opening lines about how “Mother’s in the bedroom, she’s praying to the wall, father’s on the Xbox, son learns women from his porn.” It’s the best song not written by Tom Petty to feature a chorus with the words free falling.

With a slightly jazzy, almost Brubeck guitar pattern etched out with a cello and violin that occasionally jitteringly swoop in from the background and then recede, ‘Picking the Roses’ has a more positive tone in its line about whirling about in glee to dance the blackness free, even if the flowers picked in the morn are withered by nightfall. A similar sentiment informs the crystal clean mood and dreamy melody of ‘Pack Your Bags’ about moving on as life’s seasons change, keeping the wind at your back and not looking around.

Things take a musical diversion on the breezy acoustic pop of ‘Raise Your Hands’ with its handclaps-like percussive undercurrent, the upbeat nature of music and the lyrics chiming as she sings about basically giving a finger to the adversities and “When life gets busy, blurred, disjointed, shackle led, breathe in, breathe out take stock of what will make you laugh instead.” Or, put another way, “Climb a local peak, sod the height.”

Breathily sung, accompanied by Evie Whittingham’s darkly stained cello as her voice soars, another defiant number about living life even in the midst of sorrow, ‘An Apple A Day’ is also unabashedly romantic in the confession that “I live, I breathe, I’m wedded to you. So that when I awake for a moment I shake with the bliss and the memory of you.”

Riding a gently dappled melody with Cooke on tinkling piano and Phil Ward (who also co-produced) on double bass, ‘Hello My Friend’ is, to quote Edith Piaf, about having no regrets when stars don’t align or shine, and not dwelling on “a love that failed to bloom, a song that had no tune.” That said, however, the tender and lovely, ‘Bring Me With You’ (the melody puts me in mind of the Ray Charles classic ‘You Don’t Know Me’) is an emotional contradiction to such advice, a song about begging a lover not to go (“My skin crawls with shame, but you, oh, you remain unswayed”) with its violin-coated chorus refrain “Bring me with you when you leave.”

Holly McCready on flute and Helen Ashworth behind the shimmering harp, it ends with the album’s only narrative, ‘The Sea’, Rachel Ede’s mournful violin complementing the bittersweet story of a woman who leaves her husband and children behind to find a new life, a new home, a new man, a new self and of the wounds left in her wake, of “unopened letters hidden in a box, birthday presents stacked up in blocks” and, it is hinted, their need to find her again.

These may not be the sort of stadium anthems that, as she puts it, make you want to “Raise your hands in the air and sing out”, but they will touch you in the quieter spaces of your heart.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.miriamcookeofficial.com

‘Bring Me With You’ – official video: