It’s a long time since I reviewed an album consisting entirely of more-or-less traditional songs and tunes, but given the recent barrage of releases from Hans Araki and Kathryn Claire – four CDs in a year! – and the irresistible title, I had to give Songs Of Love & Murder a shot. And I’m rather glad I did. Hanz and Kathryn both take vocals here, along with Hanz’s flute – sounds to me like there’s a whistle in there too from time to time – and Kathryn’s fiddle and guitar. They are well supported by Cary Novotny on guitar, Joe Trump on percussion, and Suzanne Taylor on piano.
- ‘I Buried My Wife & Danced On Top Of Her’ has similarities to the jig ‘The Frieze Breeches’ (a.k.a. ‘The Friar’s Britches’ et al.), perhaps even better known as the song and tune ‘Cúnla’, but none of the alternate titles would have fitted the general tone of the CD so well. To my ear, the guitar is mixed a little far back compared to the percussion, but the unison playing between flute and fiddle is spot on.
- ‘Lord Thomas & Fair Elander’ (Child 73), a.k.a. ‘Lord Thomas & Fair Annet’ is very close to a version recorded by Jean Ritchie in 1973, but carried here by guitar and percussion. The melody a variant of the ‘Dives & Lazarus’ tune. Hanz plays flute and takes the main vocal line here, with Kathryn providing harmonies and fiddle. While I think I still prefer Ritchie’s unaccompanied version, both singers do full justice to the song.
- ‘Helen Of Kirkconnell’ is a tragic story of jealousy and murder published in different versions by Scott in Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border, John Mayne, and Robert Burns. It’s been sung to several tunes, including the hymn tune ‘Martyrdom’, but the very attractive melody sung by Kathryn here is similar to that recorded by Archie Fisher on The Man With A Rhyme. Impeccable instrumental work and vocal harmonies from Hanz, and subtle percussion and piano.
- ‘Unlucky In Love’ is an impressive instrumental set.
- ‘The Banks Of Red Roses’ shares verses and melodic aspects with a song that misses out the murder elements, but this version is a classic murder ballad with a very effective arrangement, and excellent vocals.
- Kathryn takes lead vocals on ‘Seven Gypsies’: many versions of this ballad (Child 200) skate over the execution of the man or men with whom the lady tries to elope, in this one the hanging is referred to in the last verse, so it just about squeaks in as a murder ballad. Perhaps I should have tagged this as a plot spoiler? I have an idea this version derives from the singing of Paddy Doran.
- ‘Cobbler’s Daughter’ is well-known from the singing of Kate Rusby, but Kathryn’s version by no means suffers by comparison.
- Folk songs don’t always have an entirely logical narrative, and ‘William Taylor’ is one of the more absurd stories – abandoned bride enlists, shoots unfaithful lover, and is rewarded with the command of a ship – but this version makes good use of a spritely arrangement.
- ‘Little Musgrave 1 & 2, Sword In Hand’ – better known as ‘Little Musgrave And Lady Barnard’ (Child 81) or ‘Matty Groves’ uses two tunes, separated by a dance tune. The second is the tune mostly written by Nic Jones, though on the sleeve to Ballads And Songs he did admit that “the bulk of it is based on an American variant of the same ballad“. Lyrically, it kicks in just before Lord Barnard intrudes on the illicit lovers.
- ‘The Cook, The Thief, The Hag, This Is My Love’ is another instrumental set. ‘The Hag’ is flagged by software as ‘Old Hag You Have Killed Me’, but picking your way through the multitude of names given to any one tune can be hard work even for a specialist (which I’m not!) In any case, a good set.
- ‘Annan Waters’ also harks back to Nic Jones and Ballads And Songs, being one of the many standout tracks on that album. However, Hanz and Kathryn sing it unaccompanied, with Hanz taking the lead line. It’s not an easy song to sing, but the close harmonies here must have been perfected through many hours of rehearsal.
According to the press release, track 6 should have been another set of tunes (‘Wellington’s Advance’ and ‘Off To The Races’), but that set is not included on the CD or in the sleeve notes. However, this is still a well-balanced and exciting set of songs and tunes, mostly recorded live: there seems to be a little (mostly instrumental) overdubbing, but where it exists, it adds to the sound without detracting from its immediacy.
Both are accomplished solo singers who blend flawlessly when they harmonize, while Hanz’s flute and Kathryn’s fiddle work together beautifully, profiting from his background in the mastery of the shakuhachi (an end-blown bamboo flute) and her early training in classical violin. I hope to hear much more of them.
‘The Banks Of Red Roses’: