CARA DILLON – Wanderer (Charcoal CHARCD009)

WandererFollowing last year’s release of her first Christmas album, Upon A Winter’s Night, Dillon returns to secular form with a predominantly traditional collection, again produced by and featuring husband Sam Lakeman.

Pivoting around an underlying theme of transition and departure, whether that be through emigration or the search for love, it keeps the instrumentation spare and intimate, predominantly built around Lakeman’s piano and/or acoustic guitar, but also with occasional contributions from Ben Nicholls on double bass, Niall Murphy on fiddle and both John Smith and Justin Adams on acoustic and electric guitar, respectively.

There are two original numbers, the first up being the piano-accompanied ‘The Leaving Song’, inspired by “living wakes” held for those about to emigrate in pre-war Co.Derry with its lyric about a mother bidding farewell to a son seeking his fortunes in some other land, with a reminder that he can always find his way home. The other, the penultimate track, the simply styled metaphorical ‘Lakeside Swans’ touches a similar note, here concerning migrants and refugees and the decision to leave their homes.

There’s also a cover, the album’s final track being their dreamily lovely piano-led arrangement of ‘Dubhdara’, the slow-swaying sailing out Celtic anthem written by Shaun Davey for his 1985 album Granuaile.

The remaining seven numbers are all traditional, some familiar, others less so, case in point being the opening Ulster thoughts of home folk song ‘The Tern And The Swallow’ with its references to Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Northern Ireland, and Slieve Gallion, the mountain in Co. Londonderry. Also with their roots in Derry and nostalgia for home, ‘The Banks Of The Foyle’ concerns a girl forced to leave her true love by cruel misfortune but then learning he’s remained constant in her absence, while, featuring just Dillon and Lakeman’s guitar, ‘The Faughan Side’ conjures memories of an emigrant to America of happy days spent by the bridge of Drumahoe over the titular river.

A fine, yearningly crestfallen reading of the much recorded ‘Blackwater Side’ leads the charge for the better known songs, with its tale of a young lad lying his way into a maiden’s bed with false promises. This is complemented by ‘Both Sides Of The Tweed’, a traditional number given a makeover by Dick Gaughan, here presented in simple style with Dillon’s pure vocals and Lakeman’s piano. She’s joined by Kris Drever who duets and plays guitar for ‘Sailor Boy’, the album’s obligatory death song (you know the plot, maiden dies from grief when her sailor lover drowns) with Murphy on wheezing fiddle. Which just leaves a haunted interpretation of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, which, combining emigration and thwarted love and arranged for piano and fiddle, is fittingly set to the tune of ‘Lord Of All Hopefulness’.

Her most reflective and most musically introspective album to date, the spare arrangements putting the spotlight on her warm, crystal clear vocals, it is arguably also the best of her career.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.caradillon.co.uk

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FRANCESCA BLANCHARD – Deux Visions (Vis-À-Vis VAV-CD-60)

Deux VisionsFrancesa Blanchard’s first full-length album, Deux Visions, is picking up a lot of interest for the debut of a relative unknown. Francesca was born in France and raised in Vermont and writes and sings naturally in both English and French.

It’s almost a reflex to talk of French chanson but Francesca isn’t like that. The opening track, ‘Rame’ (Row), has the organ and pedal steel of country music – it doesn’t even travel south to Cajon country – but happens to be sung in French. Francesca helpfully provides translations in both directions and it is instructive to study the lyrics. The English version of ‘Rame’, for example, conveys the meaning of the song but completely loses the poetry of the original language. Similarly, the final line of ‘Tu N’existes Pas’ is actually “Non, tu n’es pas exactement vrai” – open to a subtly different translation. This happens in other songs, too, as though Francesca is playing linguistic games with us.

‘Home Is A Cage’ is a song of longing and loneliness, a sad story sketched in a few lines for the listener to colour in the details. ‘Wanderer’ and ‘Now That You Are Gone’ are both travelling songs looking at loneliness from a different point of view. Francesca plays acoustic guitar and sometimes relies on it but producer Chris Velan plays electric and the small band provides strings and brass as well as drums and bass and sometimes there seems to be more going on than is credited in print. This is an intriguing and sophisticated album and Francesca is only in her mid-twenties – there’s a lot more to look forward to.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.francescablanchard.com

‘Wanderer’ – official video: