Pop-up groups (let’s avoid saying ‘supergroups’) have been, well, popping up all over the place in recent years, presenting familiar artists in different combinations, line-ups and themes; the cynical might suggest this trend merely to be a convenient method of renewable energy – and marketing – to sustain interest in the artists concerned to counter the threat of fatiguing audiences who see the same names over and over again at all those festivals.
But chemistry is a wondrous and elusive thing and this Anglo/Scots alliance of Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton and Alasdair Roberts clearly have a natural empathy that works organically, seemingly without excessive effort. Now into their third album after five years and a BBC Folk Best Group Award in the locker, they’ve certainly earned their spurs as rather more than a passing fancy.
Sticking resolutely to traditional ballads from both sides of the Tweed, they have a very clear sense of identity, each approaching the music with a sort of easy yet cunning guile, while individually bringing something distinctive to the party; be it Emily Portman’s deceptively homely vocals and occasional banjo, Rachel Newton’s lyrical harp and fiddle or Lucy Farrell’s warm voice and viola (and, of course, let’s not forget that famous musical saw). All lure you into a disarming sense of cosiness as tales of blood, death, treachery and heartbreak emerge on powerful songs like My Son David [hear it on this issue’s fRoots 71compilation]The Cruel Grave and Down By The Greenwoodside while they musically skip between jaunty charm and disquieting weirdness.
The glue that holds them all together and provides much of the quirkiness that underlines them is surely the mighty Alasdair Roberts who, whether through persuasive voice or flowing guitar, emphasises the rare intimacy and occasional ghostliness of their sound, which is immeasurably enhanced by Andy Bell’s empathetic production. The songs are as old as the hills, the stories timeless and the treatment as fresh as the day.
None better than The Dark-Eyed Gypsies, arranged with the sort of backing harmony vocal arrangement that comes close to sounding absurdly twee, yet here raises a smile, the right sort of smile. I’m not entirely sure about their clippety-clop treatment of Come Write Me Down, but that may be due to over-fondness for the Copper Family version and you’ve got to love a banjo. There is much to commend them – Lucy Farrell’s unaccompanied opening to Davy Lowston introducing the sort of harmony singing in which they specialise and show again on Our Ship She’s Ready; the powerfully sparse arrangement that adds so much fuel to False True Love; Rachel Newton’s storytelling qualities on False Lover Won Back.
A rare band of distinctively individual singers and musicians who knit perfectly. It’s proper folk music – what’s not to like?