Following on from last years EP, ‘Of Maids And Mariners’, Hertfordshire folk trio Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton return with their much anticipated second album, Here’s A Health, another fine collection of traditional, self-penned and cover material that again spotlights their immaculate harmonies.
Variously playing violin, piano accordion, mandolin, flute, clarinet, whistles, electric bass and Appalachian mountain dulcimer, they’re also joined on a couple of tracks by Lukas Drinkwater and Chris Cleverley.
Following the brief a capella ‘Preamble’, an invitation to “come lift up your voices”, things get under way proper with the traditional ‘The Bird’s Courting Song’, a three-part seventeenth-century children’s nursery rhyme from the Appalachians that features Jess on flute and comes with a “towdy, owdy, di-do dum” chorus. Hannah provides the violin-driven tune for the waltzing ‘The Maid Of The Mill’, a traditional eighteenth-century ballad, supposedly about Mary Leonard, a Hertfordshire lass who spurned any number of admirers before finally marrying, the words penned by the local curate, one of the unsuccessful suitors, with Drinkwater on double bass.
The traditional seam continues to be mined with their arrangement of ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’, Jess providing the tune for this cut up lyric tale of a woman being visited by her lover’s ghost and being invited to share his grave, the vocals given a simple dulcimer backing.
Another nod to the trio’s playful nature, next up is an unaccompanied cover of Tom Paxton’s quirky children’s song, ‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’, then, again featuring Drinkwater, it’s back to the traditional meadow with another three-part harmony showcase in ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Moray’, a traditional Scottish ballad about the murder of James Stewart, the titular earl, by his arch rival, the Earl of Huntly, in 1592, supposedly because the former was accused of plotting against King James VI. Interestingly, the line about him being laid upon the green gave rise to the term Mondegreen, meaning a misheard song lyric that changes the meaning, on account of the American writer Sylvia Wright hearing it as ‘Lady Mondgreen’ and assuming it to be his lover.
The first of the original material comes with ‘Polly Can You Swim?’, co penned by Distill and Pilkington and featuring Andrew Simmons Elliott as the sailors chorus, a sprightly sea shanty rather at odds with its words about accounts of women being thrown overboard for fear of them placing curses on ships. Of course, testing by sink or swim was also applied to witches and, sure enough, it’s followed by Distill’s particularly grisly ‘Black Annis’ based on the Leicestershire legend of a child-eating witch told by parents to keep their kids in after dark, Jess taking lead against the harmonies and accompanied by a vocal drone.
Keeping things dark, piano accordion introduces the traditional American murder ballad, its drone complemented by dulcimer in an otherwise a capella reading of ‘In The Pines’ inspired by recordings by both Lead Belly and Nirvana before Hannah’s spare mandolin makes its appearance in the final stretch.
Spirits are suitably raised with a return to native soil and an unaccompanied version of the erotic euphemistic Norfolk reel ‘The Bird In The Bush’, otherwise known as ‘Three Maids A-Milking’, ahem, from whence comes the album title. Pilkington’s contribution to proceedings is ‘Take The Night’, a sprightly strummed acoustic and violin-coloured tale based on the legend of a Hertfordshire highwaywoman, Cleverley joining them on banjo, the album then closing with a fine unaccompanied take on Richard Farina’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, learned at the request of the late Dave Swarbrick when they supported him in 2015.
Maybe it’s just the time of the year, but there’s a crispness and ambience to the album that conjures bracing winter mornings and nights around the fire, but really, this is an album for all seasons.
Artists’ website: www.saidthemaiden.co.uk
‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’ – live and just for fun: