Having 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.
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Artists’ website: http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/
‘Stones’ live at Calstock Arts Centre: