EDGELARKS – Feather (Dragonfly Roots DRCD006)

FeatherThe fifth album by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, but Feather is only the second under their new name, this had the formidable task of following upon their eponymous ‘debut’. As you would expect, it does so effortlessly, expanding their musical palette as it goes and showcasing Martin’s ever maturing voice. The discovery of a single feather in the middle of a Dartmoor stone provided the impetus for the opening banjo-driven title track, the inability to identify its origin serving to underscore the notion that there remains mystery in the world and the album’s proclaimed mission to bring hope and positivity in dark times.

Ancient stones also lie behind ‘Where I Stand’, specifically the Roborough Down stone, one of the many Ogham stones which bear writing in the Irish runic alphabet, the lyrics reflecting the fact that this particular stone carries the inscription of two names, a father and his son who, as second generation no longer considered Irish as his native tongue. It’s not hard to see the wider resonance of embracing new cultures while honouring the old.

With Hannah on fiddle and Phillip augmenting guitar with stomp box, ‘Back From Hope’ is a breezy duet about a husband and wife who spent their Sundays walking the Peak District (Hope being a Derbyshire village), although the song has its origins in the true tragedy of John Axon, a Stockport railwayman killed while trying to stop a runaway freight train his story recounted in MacColl and Seeger’s Radio Ballads where his wife recalls their hikes.

Featuring dobro and banjo, ‘Wanting Nothing’ addresses a theme of contentment with just a home away from the bustle and a fire to warm, while National and tenor guitar lay down a slow-paced melody for ‘What We Save From The Tide’ where the beachcombing the flotsam and jetsam serves as a metaphor for the creative process.

The duo switch instruments with Phillip on banjo and Hannah on guitar for ‘Oyster’, another song of promise and hope that draws on nature (the poem referencing Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers) in the idea of the mollusc spinning beauty out of pain., the six-minute track building to a frenetic mantra-like climax.

Fiddle shares space with stomp and shruti box for ‘Time Away’, a lazing, slowly loping celebration of the rejuvenating power of taking time off for a holiday, the pair delving into real life with ‘Growing’, dobro and banjo creating the dreamy atmosphere as, based on a true story from Sweden, the clearly metaphorical lyrics recount the loss and, sixteen years later, the recovery of a wedding ring, here wrapped around an unearthed carrot.

They head into the final stretch with the rhythmically itchy and melodically shape-shifting ‘Wander’, Henry’s buzzing beatbox harmonica putting in its only appearance alongside pizzicato five-string fiddle, shruti and stomp box for a song that (with a hint of Celtic folk to its swaying chorus) is essentially about migration and the definition of home as the place where you put down roots not where you come from.

The album’s sole traditional number comes with a six-minute rendition of Spencer The Rover, stripped back to the bare bones of harmonica, shruti drone and Martin’s exposed vocals, the final number being ‘The Longest Day’, plucked fiddle and National steel solo colouring a song of change and renewal inspired by the turning of the year, solstices, equinoxes and, the song building from calm to a swelling anthemic feel on Martin’s soaring fiddle, traditions like the May Day dancing the sun up on Dartmoor and a reminder that “the day is long and full of hope/And the circle turns forever”.

They describe their intention as to create an album of “bright songs for dark days”. Let it light up your life.

Mike Davies

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‘Feather’ – live:

KEITH JAMES – Message From The Gods (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2928)

Message From The GodsThe forthcoming CD from Keith James, Message From The Gods, is released on Monday June 3rd, and it’s a worthy successor to the albums of Keith’s that I’ve previously reviewed on this site. Which is to say that it’s very good indeed. Keith is a fine poet and songwriter in his own right, as well as a highly-rated interpreter of songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen et al. But he has also established an enviable track record in setting the poetry of other writers to music. This album continues to demonstrate his pre-eminence in that particular field, with ten settings of verse by Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Kahlil Gibran, Kate Tempest, W H Auden, Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen. And here’s the track listing.

  1. ‘Tiresias’ is the first of two settings of verse by Kate Tempest. It’s rather a good example of Keith’s ability to make an effective song out of an irregularly-structured, rhyme-free poem. Some very nice slide guitar by Phillip Henry in this one, too.
  2. ‘You Are The One’ sets a poem by Frida Kahlo, better known as an artist. In fact, this poem to Diego Rivera makes for a very attractive love song.
  3. ‘All My News’ is a setting of a poem from Leonard Cohen’s collection Book Of Longing. The harmonies here and in track two are, appropriately enough, somewhat reminiscent of Cohen’s incorporation of female backing singers on his last tours. Indeed, if he’d set this poem to music, I suspect that his version would not have been unlike Keith’s.
  4. ‘Quartet’ is based on lines from Khalil Gibran’s collection of poetic essays The Prophet. Keith’s setting and arrangement has echoes of Western Asia that seem to recall Gibran’s Lebanese ancestry and awareness of a range of religious cultures.
  5. If the title of ‘Caged Bird’ reminds you of Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, you’re in the right ball park, though Angelou’s book title was actually taken from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. Angelou’s poem is clearly influenced by Dunbar’s, but is none the worse for that.
  6. ‘The things I know’ is another setting of a poem by Kate Tempest. The poem reads almost like a string of epigraphs – “Fame is the worst thing that could happen, to your reputation / If some people don’t hate your work, you’re not doing it right” – yet Keith’s reconstruction gives it added lyrical and musical coherence.
  7. ‘If You Forget Me’ is a setting of verse by Pablo Neruda. Was Neruda writing to his wife, his lover, or to Chile while he was in exile? I don’t know, but the song works very, very well.
  8. ‘Alone’ sets another Maya Angelou poem set to a blues-y tune with an adventurous arrangement.
  9. ‘Weeping guitar’ is vintage Keith James, setting a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. No-one does this kind of setting better than Keith.
  10. H. Auden is probably best known popularly for Funeral Blues (“Stop all the clocks…“) since it was read in Four Weddings And A Funeral, though his technical range was far wider. His poem ‘But I can’t’, in this setting, sounds absolutely made for music.

Once again, Keith’s own musical expertise and sensitive vocals are supported by a fine set of musicians, and particular credit is due to the vocal support of Antonia Salter and the mixing and mastering skills of Branwen Munn. This is class material performed in an exemplary fashion. Highly recommended.

David Harley

Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/

‘All My News’:

EDGELARKS – Edgelarks (Dragonfly DRCD004)

EdgelarksHaving previously traded under their own names, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have decided to save space on the album sleeves (well, after this one anyway) by reinventing themselves as Edgelarks. Fans will be pleased to know, however, that, musically, the duo haven’t rung too many changes.

Featuring contributions from Lukas Drinkwater on bass, John Elliott on drums and keyboards and table player Niall Robinson, inspired by last year’s tour of Australia, the album deals with themes of margins and marginalisation, of boundaries, transition and hope, opening in ‘Landlocked’, a moody, banjo-pinioned song about Nancy Perriam, a woman from Exmouth, who, in the early part of the 19th century, went to sea and travelled the world with the navy.

The slouching rhythm of ‘No Victory’ introduces a new instrument to their musical repertoire with Martin playing a pedal powered shruti box while the track also features Henry’s beatbox harmonica technique. Indeed, the instrumentation throughout is as eclectic as it is extensive, featuring Dobro, fiddle, banjo, a variety of guitars and the return of the Chaturangui, an Indian classical slide guitar played by Henry. On ‘Undelivered’, a song inspired by the discovery of a trunkload of undelivered 17th century letters, specifically one from a woman to the father of her unborn child, he even plays his lap slide Weissenborn with a paintbrush to create a buzzing drone.

Of a more recent origin, three intersecting true stories make up the sparse, drone-backed ‘Caravans’, pivoting around the 2010 sub-prime mortgages crash documented in the film The Big Short and exploring themes of ensuing loss and lives lived outside the financial vortex where dreams can kill.

Elsewhere, the Celtic-tinged ‘Signposts’, the most traditional folk sounding number, and the minimalist and appropriately glacial arrangement of ‘Iceberg’ offer fairly straightforward metaphors about making connections and people having hidden depths, respectively.

A suitably discordant affair, ‘Yarl’s Wood’ strikes a political note, being titled after and written about the Bedfordshire immigrant removal centre and the allegations of the abusive treatment of the women detainees, the theme of refugees resurfacing on ‘Borders’, which, set to drone and clacking percussion, is based around the true story of Afghan refugees who, seeking to ensure her future, send their five-year-old daughter on a journey, on foot, with two cousins to northern Europe in search of asylum.

Thematically connected, the tabla-dappled ‘Song Of The Jay’, ostensibly about how the Californian Bush Jay apparently sings a special song for the ‘funerals’ of other birds, of different species, serves as a metaphor for universal kinship. The drone is also created from a sample of a Jay singing.

Although also going by the title ‘The Emigrants Song’, sung in Cornish by Martin, the rhythmically pulsing traditional ‘Estren’ takes a different tack in the tale of an American traveller in Cornwall, leaving it open to question whether he intends to be true to the woman he meets and declares he’ll take back home or that she’s the latest in the list of those to whom he’s pledged s his loves.

There’s another traditional number to be found with the mortality-themed ‘What’s The Life of Man?’ given a suitably simple and reflective tone before the instrumentation swells in the final stretch. As well as them both featuring the Chaturangui, it also serves to set the scene for the upbeat final track, the self-penned, acoustic accompanied ‘The Good Earth’ which treats on nature’s life cycle of death and renewal and, by extension, the connections we share with one another, both those around us and those who have gone before as she sings how “we grow on old wood, we are links in the chain.”

The couple say they chose their new name as it captures the concept of liminality or transition explored in their songs and the idea of their music being on the periphery. Given the quality here, that may be a status that will also prove to be in a state of transition.

Mike Davies

Phil Henry and Hannah Martin 24/9/17a

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‘Song Of The Jay’:

Edgelarks – Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin – New Album and Remaining Tour Dates

Edgelarks

We were recently treated to the hatching of Edgelarks (the new name for duo Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin) at the Southdowns Folk Festival in Bognor Regis last Sunday evening. The name change also spearheads the launch of the new album by the same name that is released 6.10.17.

The definition of Edgelark is “to sing about or from the margins”.

So its no surprise that the album focus on transitional spaces, minimal places, people, refugees and times. It looks at boundaries and thresholds; crossroads and borderlands.  There is a travelling theme that runs through the new album which spans stories of transition from old to new, all documented in song and wonderful music to a backdrop of shades of early morning light contrasted with the last ebb of light at the end of the day.

Darren Beech

Edgelarks describe this further as:

The idea that, despite often being places of marginalisation, these are also places of change – and therefore places of hope. That when social norms break down, when you are between two established worlds, there is a chance for new perspectives. That in the end, we have far more in common than things that divide us.

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GILMORE & ROBERTS – Conflict Tourism (GR! Records GRR006)

GILMORE & ROBERTS Conflict TourismI remember once, in Ireland, hearing that some American tourists’ idea of a fun day out was a taxi ride down the Falls Road. That kind of “thinking” forms the theme of this album, the fourth from Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts.

The opening track, ‘Cecilia’, is a very powerful way to start with double bass from Matt Downer and all manner of additions from producer Mark Tucker, notably the percussive crack presumably imitating gunfire. It’s followed by ‘Jack O Lantern’ which starts out quietly and builds up to a big finish with Phillip Henry on lap steel. It has the Devil ruminating on being tricked not once but twice by the titular Jack. Next come a song from each writer which seem to link: Katriona’s ‘She Doesn’t Like Silence’ and Jamie’s ‘Selfish Man’ and here’s where I need to turn to the lyrics which are available on their duo’s website. Both are about internal conflict: the former is decorated by Phillip Henry’s lap steel and Dobro while the latter once more benefits from mark Tucker’s programming. As a man brought up in Derbyshire I should really like ‘Stumble On The Seam’ more than I do but by now I was beginning to find that the music was overwhelming the songs.

‘Peggy Airey’ is about a 19th century Barnsley character with the narrator regretting his former cruelty to her and ‘Peter Pan’ is dedicated to Jamie’s cousin who died prematurely – another aspect of internal conflict – and the one song in the set that doesn’t try too hard. Katriona and Jamie seem bent on moving towards the mainstream and, while I can’t deny them their ambition, where they’re going may not be where I want to follow.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Cecilia’ – the official video:

PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARTIN – Watershed (Dragonfly Roots DRCD003)

PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARTIN WatershedHaving walked away with the Best Duo gong at the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, there must have been a degree of pressure on Henry and Martin when it came to their third album. Which may or may not have had something to do with them taking a very deliberate departure from Mynd. Where that largely addressed historical figures, here they chose to draw on more personal experience as a means of filtering everyman stories as a sort of modern day folk tale about, as per the title’s implications (on which they sing about which side to go), the decisions made and paths taken that shape different destinies

Recorded over 10 days in Devon’s Blackdown Hills with Matt Downer on double bass and James Taylor providing percussion, it’s a less musically textured affair in the sense that Henry has mostly confined himself to guitar and Dobro rather than draw on his wide-ranging virtuoso talents (though he does still wield the trusty harmonica), with Martin tempering everything with her violin.

I should, at this point, declare that I’m not fully persuaded by her vocals, which, while undeniably clear and fine, I find to be, at times, slightly too considered and measured, in need of a little more warmth, looseness and emotional expression. As such, from a personal perspective, it’s taken a while to get inside the album and find a connection, but that’s in no way to deny the craftsmanship of either the playing or the material.

Following on from the titular opener, guitar and mandolin (courtesy Rex Preston) provide the bedrock for ‘Stones’ (as in let him who is without sin, etc) , a musically undulating song inspired by now ex-UKIP councillor David Silvester, who declared the storms of 2014 were God’s response to same sex marriage. Harmonica opens and buzzes around ‘Tonight’, a musically multi-coloured track that takes on a sort of mix of trip hop beats, folk blues shuffle and dreamy croon, Martin’s delivery having a hint of Middle Eastern sway.

‘Yarrow Mill’ strikes a personal note for Henry, who takes his only lead vocal on a song that , backed by Martin’s pizzicato violin, tenderly recalls his grandparents’ courtship in the cotton mill of the title. Family history is there too on the spooked bluegrass mood of the search for a better life tale of ‘Foundling’, which grows from a spare, Dobro-mottled intro into an earthier affair, its traditional colours splashed with double bass and vibes to conjure a jazz-folk sense redolent of early Pentangle. Gently bathed in understated banjo and Dobro. ‘Conkers’ too has a reflective eye, looking back at childhood innocence from an adult’s perspective.

The year turns with the five minute guitar, violin and vibes instrumental ‘December’, ushering in an a capella Martin for ‘January’, a performance that underscores her vocal prowess and has me reconsidering my opinion. On then to the heavy weight of loss that hangs over the minimally arranged ‘Letter (Unsent), a reverie of strings set against the slow march drum beat taking over from the vocals around the three minute mark.

The album moves to its close with melancholic Celtic-misted Dobro for the Irish instrumental ‘Lament’ providing a bridge to ‘London’, a more musically upbeat, driving and almost rocky eight-minute number that could be seen as a vision of the now grown foundlings from earlier in the album further on their journey in search of one of a million futures, “picking them like flowers, making your way home”, as the number erupts in fiery fiddle. After the storm comes the calm, for ‘Taxis’, a banjo rippling ambivalent celebration of the working musician’s life on the road, one of former travelling and hanging around. But, let us not forget, they set off by stepping out on the stage to perform songs such as these, and sending audiences home with a glow in the soul.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/

‘Stones’ live at Calstock Arts Centre: