Since the release of their debut album two years ago, Polly Bolton has flown the nest to be replaced by clawhammer banjo player Kate Griffin alongside founder members Bella Gaffney) guitar, double bass) and Holly Brandon (fiddle), making her presence felt both as performer and songwriter. Indeed Undertow opens with her taking lead on the ebullient banjo and fiddle driven jazz-folk self-penned ‘Now & Then’, a song about the push and pull of relationships, the fast-slow arrangement and sudden hiatuses in the singing underlining the theme, Ben and Thomas Webster providing propulsive hand percussion.
Gaffney’s title track follows in gentler manner, showcasing the trio’s harmonies with Griffin on dobro for a seductive chorus-friendly song about the pull of addiction and the exploitation of women (“my body’s not my own”), the banjo, as in the previous track, curiously suggesting Eastern shades. All three share credits and breathy vocals for ‘Pass My By’, Brandon’s fiddle adding a forlorn note to a song about being invisible (“I’ve been feeling like a shadow on the wall”) that again demonstrates their ability to craft a memorable chorus hook.
She may not take a vocal spotlight, but Brandon is firmly showcased on two instrumentals, the first being the lively pulsing Solstice and the second, later in the running order, being ‘Colin’s Set’ which, Griffin on banjo, starts out with ‘Colins’, written in honour of one of their biggest fans, with a slow bowed fiddle riff overlaid with faster playing, leading into the staccato fiddle of ‘Mariners’ and ending with a whirlwind ‘Tiredness Kills’.
There’s three traditional numbers, first heading out to the Appalachian for a band arrangement of ‘Fall On My Knees’, a variation of the earlier ‘Long Lonesome Road’, shuffling the verses around so it opens with the chorus “You told me one, you told me two/You told me ten thousand lies little girl/You told me ten thousand lies”, before returning home for a slow dreamy banjo dappled sway through the pastoral sexual fantasy ‘Hares On The Mountain’. Arranged and sung by Griffin with banjo to the fore and Mark Waters guesting on bass, the third (sometimes credited to either Fred Hellerman or A.P.Carter), is ‘I Never Will Marry’, here given a starker Appalachian flavoured musical reading but departing from the norm for Griffin’s more optimistic ending where the protagonist, bereft at the loss of her lover, is saved from drowning herself by another woman who says he’ll live on in her heart.
Of the two remaining originals. Griffin, on fretless banjo, wrote and sings the gently rippling romantic ‘If Time Were Money’ with Brandon taking a lengthy solo midway in, while Gaffney nods to the Italian astronomer with ‘Galileo’ which, drawing on his defiance in the face of accusations of heresy in claiming the Earth revolved around the sun, is about facing challenges and not giving up the fight in the face of ignorance and stupidity – complete with another crowd-friendly refrain. It ends, the Websters’ hands back in action, with a surprise cover in the form of Eurythmics hit ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’, replacing the synths with pulsing fiddle, double bass and plucked banjo as their voices come together.
If there’s any reservations, it’s that Undertow is perhaps overly restrained and it would be good to hear them let rip with something of fiery stomp, by that’s minor quibble in the face of such consummate artistry.
Artists’ website: www.themagpiesmusic.com
‘Galileo’ – live:
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