RACHEL NEWTON – To The Awe (Shadowside SHADOW04)

To The AweWhen this album first arrived I took one look at the cover and wondered what strange beast had come my way. I’ve seen Rachel Newton perform several times but never looking quite like this. I wouldn’t normally do this but I must credit Somhairle MacDonald for the imaginative photographs herein. To The Awe is her sixth solo album to sit alongside her work with The Shee and The Furrow Collective.

‘The Early Morning’ is based on the ballad ‘The False-Hearted Knight’ and is mighty song to open the album. You wouldn’t know at first that you were listening to a harper and that can be laid firmly at the door of co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Mattie Foulds and the brass of Mikey Owers but finally the electroharp takes a solo. The songs here are either traditional or based on poems from the 18th and 19th centuries with music by Rachel and all have women at their heart. In addition there are two short instrumental improvisations featuring Mikey and Lauren MacColl who also has a major role to play in this record.

‘We Will Listen’ comes from a poem by Susan Coolidge, author of What Katy Did, addressed to a fellow poet and singer, Jean Ingelow. Initially it is rich with harp and viola but, like the opener, it builds up to a big finish. The harp and violin introduce ‘Chaidil Mi A-Raoir Air An Airigh’ but percussion – Foulds again – exerts its influence as befits a waulking song about a young girl who doesn’t take anything from anybody.

The title track is derived from ‘The Rock Of Cader Idris’ in which the poet risks the fate of those who fall asleep on the summit of the mountain. Rachel has abbreviated and then added to the original which is now an atmospheric depiction of the wonder of the place. Rachel took her version of ‘Maid By The Shore’, one of the few mermaid stories in the tradition, from Peggy Seeger and it contrasts marked with ‘To My Daughter’ written by Anne Hunter on the occasion of her daughter’s marriage. The melancholy of the lyric is alleviated somewhat by the arrangement but Owers’ brass maintains its mournful feel.

‘Two Sisters’ is decorated by Foulds’ drums and keys and, finally, Lady Nairne’s ‘Would You Be Young Again’ poses a question that troubles us all as we get older – Lady Nairne would not and I find myself in agreement.

In contrast to its predecessor, West, which is entirely solo, To The Awe is very much an ensemble piece despite being recorded while physically distanced. Mattie Foulds balances the mix terrifically well, keeping Rachel’s voice front and centre while projecting the drama of the songs through the arrangements and instrumentation. To The Awe is a fine album but I’m a fan.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.rachelnewtonmusic.com

‘We Will Listen’ – official video: