SYKESMARTIN – Unquenching Fire (Dragonfly Roots DRCD009)

Unquenching FireSykesMartin sounds like one of those industrial processes that we had to learn about in chemistry lessons and that’s not a bad analogy. Miranda Sykes and Hannah Martin, with a little help from Phillip Henry, create a remarkable musical chemistry on their debut project as a duo. Unquenching Fire is predominantly traditional although, having got us settled down, Miranda and Hannah do take a few liberties with their material.

They begin with ‘Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies’ over Miranda’s bass drone with Hannah’s lead vocal and banjo – unless that’s Phillip being a ringer – and sweet Appalachian harmonies. Miranda takes over the lead for ‘Blow The Candle Out’. This would seem to be a text from Suffolk employing a tune by Damien Clarke with whom Miranda worked many years ago. There is the barest hint of Maddy Prior in Hannah’s vocal on ‘Lovely On The Water’ and we’re beginning to see a pattern emerging: young woman, young man, seduction and separation. At least we get to the broken token now although we don’t know if the sailor comes back home.

‘Sweet Lemany’ reverses the narrative as the young chap laments for his lost love who has been sent away by the inevitable cruel parents. Miranda breaks the song with crunching double bass. The non-traditional track is Anne Briggs’ ‘Go Your Way’ and even after all these years it’s still a knock-out song and SykesMartin do it full justice. I won’t say it’s the best track on the album but it’s right up there.

The lovely ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ brings us the conclusion of the broken token story and I’m still astonished that the young men in these songs don’t get a well-deserved hand-bagging for messing her about like this. This track demonstrates a device that occurs throughout the record in which Miranda sings a couple of lines drawn from the text – almost a musical pull quote – as an interlude between the verses and the same technique is used to even greater effect in the title track.

‘Standing Stones’ comes from Orkney and brings murder into the equation while ‘Flanders’ expands a slight song – just two verses – into a vocal and instrumental workout. ‘Forsaken Maiden’ takes us back to the main theme and was the source of Steeleye Span’s ‘Sails Of Silver’ and ‘Little Margaret’ gives us the final tragedy of love, plundering elements from several other songs, including a sort of gender-reversal of ‘Matty Groves’. In a return to the simplicity of the first track, Hannah and Miranda sing it unaccompanied and give it an American feel, perhaps a nod to Hedy West’s 1964 recording.

I need say no more. Unquenching Fire is simply one of the best albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

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