A fluid Cornish collective built around the constant foundation of Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain who share vocals and play guitar/bass/piano and accordion, respectively, Picking Up The Pieces, their second album sees them joined by Jamie Francis on banjo, percussionist Evan Carson and Morrigan Palmer Brown on harp with various contributions from Kevin McGuire (upright bass), John McCusker (fiddle) and Belinda O’Hooley (piano).
As with their debut, it’s firmly rooted in Cornish soil, something underlined from the start with traditional-sounding album opener ‘Caradon Hill’, a portrait of life above and below ground for the miners and their families in what was once the UK’s biggest copper mine, it’s decline presaged in the lyrics as, McCusker’s fiddle providing the spine, it builds to the a cappela coda.
Moving to Polperro, the sprightly’ Zephaniah Job’, the pair alternating vocals, tells of the 18th century Cornish entrepreneur who, though always mindful of making a profit, served as benefactor to the local fishermen, smugglers and schoolchildren alike. Talking of smugglers, ‘The Grayhound’, sung by Kelly with McCusker on fiddle and whistle and Francis’s banjo bolstering the arrangement, is an account of the three-master privateer charged by the government with chasing down smugglers’ ships, though the chorus line about pillaging and raiding the south Cornish coast suggests its crew may well have exceeded their mandate.
Co-penned by Brittain and Boo Hewardine, just as Louise Jordan’s latest turns the spotlight on the role of women during WWI, ‘Bal Maiden’s Waltz’ details the generally overlooked contribution of women and girls to the Cornish mining industry, Kelly adding cittern to his guitar parts with Brittain taking lilting lead on a song about how the so-called ‘bal maidens’ would crush, grind and break down the ore sent up from the mine before going home to feed the families, go dancing and break hearts.
Penned by Brittain, but sung by Kelly, featuring harp, harmonium, fiddle and upright bass, ‘Gwrello Glaw (Let It Rain)’ is the first of two numbers in Cornish, a reflective song about living life to the full regardless of what storms come your way. This is followed by the more musically energetic ‘The Cinder Track’, a driving banjo and guitar led stomp forming a sort of tarmac shanty in tribute to the men who build the roads. One of two numbers not penned by band members, ‘Koh-I-Noor’ is, simply arranged for guitar, banjo and accordion, a waltzing Hewardine composition, a musing on mortality drawing comparison between the lengthy existence of the titular diamond and the brief lives of those who coveted and killed for it.
Kelly provides the music for the second of the Cornish numbers, a gently rippling and tumbling airy treatment of the traditional ‘Delyow Sevi’ (winner of Best Traditional Song in a Celtic Language at the 2015 International Pan Celtic Song Contest), the duo sharing vocal duties, Carson tapping out percussion while harp shimmers throughout.
The running order reversed on the sleeve and lyric sheet, ‘Tie ‘Em Up’ is Geoff Lakeman’s rhythmically itchy protest against successive governments’ imposition of EU-agreed fishing quotas and the cost to Cornish fishermen and their families, followed by the sombre and sober anti-war ‘We Will Remember Them’, a track which also appears on their forthcoming Armistice Day commemorative EP, The Names on the Wall, O’Hooley accompanying Kelly on piano.
The album ends with another duo composition, ‘It’s All Downhill From Here’, a lively banjo bouncing singalong romp (again referencing the copper mines of Caradon) celebrating the men who built the railroads, even if the title hints that this was the peak of the Industrial Revolution.
If Seth Lakeman was the vanguard of the revival of Cornwall as a bastion of the contemporary folk scene, The Changing Room are leading the pincer movement.
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