Salt House’s Huam (the call of an owl) is an album of temporal beauty that touches the eternal. The poet Emily Dickenson (more about whom later) did the very same thing.
‘First Light’ is a stunning song. Jenny Sturgeon sings with a cautionary voice, a voice that recalls (the great) Sandy Denny and the currently wonderful Karine Polwart. The tune dances with graveyard steps. Lauren MacColl’s violin weaves a tense tweed, while an acoustic guitar quietly frames the melody, and a harmonium carves a deep groove with a haunted voice with an ancient breath. This is a brief glimpse into the ethos of the band.
In contrast, Ewan MacPherson (of Fribo fame!) sings his tune, ‘All Shall Be Still’, which is quick-paced and melodic, like an early John Martyn song from his Bless The Weather album. Now, he sings the words of (the famous Greek guy) Heraclitus, who said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. And that’s just the deal with this record: traditional music flows from some wonderous spout of memory, but it flows quickly, and this album is yet another beautiful moment that babbles with a nice current melody. It’s sort of like Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Some Keep The Sabbath Going To Church’, where she writes, “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—I’m going, all along”. So, this music, to quote Bob Dylan, will “keep on keeping on”.
That’s what Huam does.
‘Mountain Of Gold’ harmonizes the three voices, while that harmonium wobbles delightfully beneath the viola and acoustic guitar. This is a new tune that echoes an ancient hymn to the seasons and the stars.
It’s just an idea, but this music sings with the Sunt Kelda (Norse for “sweet well water”) from which the Scottish island Saint Kilda has derived its name.
Two songs have deep ballad roots. ‘William And Elsie’ travels, with a multi- voiced pathos, that recalls the “chilly cold” kinship beauty of The Pentangle, Spriguns, or the more modern Malinky. The same is true for ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’. The terse guitar and viola, with the very urgent vocal, indeed, play with “blood” that will “stain the heather”. And yet, this music circles and glides like the gannets and fulmars that hover over the “sweet well water” of Saint Kilda’s Scottish history. And, let’s face it: Great Scottish folk music always, one way or another, manages to “stain the heather”.
Ewan MacPherson’s second vocal, ‘If I Am Lucky’, is slow and pensive, like some Shetland island moment of melodic contemplation. And it oozes with the very plaintive glance seen in (the great) Roddy Woomble’s cover photo for his album My Secret Is My Silence. That’s high Shetland praise.
‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers’ is a short (almost) acapella bit that sets Emily Dickinson’s poem to music, with a few plucked string notes here and there. It’s a nice interlude.
It’s important to mention that the songs are band composed, with the occasional use of existing poems. It’s always nice to hear new musicians cast a pebble or two into the deep river and constant flow of songwriters’ inspiration. And these are nice tunes.
The final songs place a quiet exclamation point to the proceedings. ‘The Disquiet’ sings with that very same “sweet water”, while a viola yearns and circles with warm feathered hope. ‘The Same Land’ floats on a breath of slow danced stringed beauty. And the final song, ‘Union Of Crows’, spins with an up-tempo acoustic guitar vibe. Then strings sing with sympathetic hue, while the vocal darts with Heraclitus’ ever-changing river flux.
Yes, indeed, Huam sings with a glance to a passionate past. But, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Exultation Is The Going”. It’s a mental trip “into deep infinity”. And, this album is a nice melodic ride into that ever-changing, and very folky, “watching the river flow” with such “sweet well water” tradition.
Artists’ website: www.salthousemusic.com