LAURA SMYTH & TED KEMP – The Poacher’s Fate (Broken Token Records TOKEN 002)

FateI get to listen to a great deal of wonderful music in this “job” but nothing pleases me more than traditional songs from the British Isles and that is just what we have here. The Poacher’s Fate is the first full length recording by Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp following their EP, The Charcoal Black And The Bonny Grey. The material they present here frequently comes from their home regions, the north-west and East Anglia but even if you know the title you may not recognise the version of the songs. Being librarians by profession is a big help.

Their strength lies in vocal harmonies and Laura has a superb voice to take the lead. They use a number of instruments without identifying them: banjo, guitar, cello and concertina are fairly obvious and their arrangements are sparse. If you want to step back fifty years to the best of folk music performance of the past, only with better production values, this is the way to do it.

Poachers are the “heroes” of the title track which opens the set in unaccompanied harmony and there are plenty of cads and ruffians in this set. The second track, ‘Alison Device’, is the only non-traditional song but Laura’s skill as a songwriter makes it almost impossible to tell. The story of a girl condemned during the Pendle witch trials is initially accompanied by a cello drone before the banjo picks out highlights of the melody before becoming a full backing.

‘There Is A Tavern’ and ‘Murder In The Red Barn’ feature the real bad guys and ‘Cecilia’ is, in all but name, ‘Sovay’ in a variant learned from Gordon Hall. ‘Brave Benbow’ comes straight from the 60s but ‘Wild Rover’ is a more thoughtful version than the familiar foot-stomper. The less familiar material includes a set of 3/2 hornpipes, ‘Winder’s Hornpipe/Kill Him With Kindness’, ‘The Brown Hare Of Whitebrook’ by Saddleworth poet Ammon Wrigley and the tender ‘Carrickmannon Lake’ reflecting Laura’s ancestry in County Down.

Much praise has been heaped on Laura and Ted already and I won’t shy away from adding to the accolades. This is an excellent album of proper folk music.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘The Poacher’s Fate’ – live at the Green Note:

Laura Smyth And Ted Kemp – new album

Laura Smyth And Ted Kemp

The song that gives the album its name is also its first. And, unaccompanied with seamless harmonies, it’s a portent to what lies ahead. Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp’s voices are clear and well matched, a vigorous call to arms to the poacher’s lot.

Lead track, ‘Alizon Device’, is an original composition, a ballad that explores her condemnation during the Pendle witch trials. With one of the most singable choruses on the album, we wonder if Laura’s refrain: “where the sweet heather blooms all the day” is actually the composer’s homage to her own home region.

Though instrumentation across the album is wide and varied, arrangements are sensitive and spare. ‘There Is A Tavern’ sees yearning vocals backed by simple, mournful banjo, while ‘Here’s Adieu To All Judges And Juries’ builds gently, cello joined by guitar. Then, before we realise, they’re gone.

Though Laura and Ted favour the lesser known, and often from their native regions of the North West and East Anglia, there are popular choices here, too – but their thoughtful approaches mean that the listener is offered something new. In ‘Wild Rover’, Ted Kemp sings with such remorse that we feel we cannot join in, but let him continue in his catharsis. ‘Cecilia’ is rousing and triumphant, recounted by an omniscient narrator.

And, as to expected from two librarians, one of whom is also Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, liner notes are comprehensive, with song choices fully explained: the version selected, the additions and deletions made.

Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Ian Carter of Stick In The Wheel, a band known for their straight-up approach to tradition, The Poacher’s Fate is a record that will strike the listener for its passionate connection with the source material and its robust, full-blooded approach.

Artists’ website:

‘The Poacher’s Fate’ – live: