Frankie Armstrong – Cats Of Coven Lawn: Album Review

Godmother of the Natural Voice movement, Frankie Armstrong, celebrates her 80th birthday in style.

Release Date:  22nd January 2021

Label: GF*M Records/Pirate Jenny Records

Formats: CD

Frankie Armstrong is a venerable presence.  Singer, Social Worker and Voice Coach, she’s been active in music since 1957 and began singing professionally in 1964.  In 1972, she achieved national prominence when Topic Records released her cult classic album Lovely On The Water and over the years she’s worked with the likes of Anne Briggs, Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger and Leon Rosselson.  What’s more, she’s qualified as a Social Worker for blind people, has been a prominent member of the Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) and, in 2018, she was awarded a Gold Badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society for her outstanding contribution to folk music.  AND, she’s the current President of the Natural Voice Network, a movement that believes singing is a birthright and aims to recreate the sense that vocalizing, singing and singing together are natural expressions, open to all.

Cats of Coven Lawn is Frankie’s twelfth album and its release will mark this remarkable lady’s 80th birthday.  Recorded in Brighton over a couple of weeks and produced by the acclaimed Tom Pryor, it’s a remarkable piece of work.  The recording was done mainly live, with limited overdubbing and the sound is definitely LoFi. Indeed, the album’s press release remarks that the album’s aesthetic is akin to sitting around the dinner table with Frankie and her friends, reliving her memories through songs, and that description hits the nail right on the head. 

Frankie’s commitment to appropriate social and quasi-political causes comes through with distinction. Alongside her signature interpretations of numerous traditional songs, the causes of women’s rights and equality, climate change, world poverty and deprivation, education rights and mortality are all addressed.  Instrumentation is minimal; the majority of the songs are a cappella, featuring the voices of Frankie, Laura Bradshaw and Pauline Down (collectively known as Bread And Roses) but the sound is sweetened, in the right places, by the guest appearances of Martin Simpson, Brian Pearson and Ton Pryor’s Bird In The Belly ensemble.

The album is, perhaps, most notable for the strength of its messaging. The opening track, Bread And Roses, is a Leon Rosselson arrangement of a 1912 poem by James Oppenheim about a strike by (mainly) women at a Massachusetts mill in which the striking women express their demands for bread (sustenance) and, with equal importance, roses to fulfill the need for beauty in their lives.  Something Sings reminds us of the beauty and life-affirming nature of song and We Are Women, with its words extracted from the writing of Susan Griffin, emphasizes the communion between women and nature.  Elsewhere, Yoiks expresses solidarity with the Sami people of Northern Europe, whose existence is threatened by climate change. 

For me, the three strongest messages on the album are conveyed by three diverse songs: Frankie’s own Where I Live On The Map observes how access to water – for drinking and washing – is purely an accident determined by where one is born and lives.  Whilst availability of water is taken for granted in the developed nations of the west, its scarcity in much of the world (Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Ghana are given here as examples) is life-threatening. 

Encouragement, originally written in German by Wolf Biermann in the 1970s, reflects on the frustrations we often feel with our situation and, by extension, the inabilities (or reluctance) of our leaders to improve things, but gives encouragement to avoid bitterness and fear and to seek the help of others and to speak out.  The song’s poignancy in a world dominated by ignorance and populism is striking.  Finally, Laura Bradshaw’s Song Of Strength is simply stunning; With lyrics that include extracts from Malala Yousafzai’s website, it’s a highly powerful statement in support of the right of everyone, but particularly females, everywhere to schooling and education.

The album’s messages are strong, the subject matter is carefully chosen and the expressions of support are given with assuredness and without polemic.

Important though much of the messages are, there is much more to Cats Of Coven Lawn.  The title track (complete with its lighthearted “Miaow” chorus) is an enjoyable adaptation of a Bodleian Broadside Ballad; the traditional Lizzie Wan is a tale of incest and murder that would knock spots of the happenings in Albert Square and Ben Pearson’s Macy’s Guesthouse oozes sadness and loneliness in its description of a formerly popular holiday residence, now populated only by its proprietress and the ghosts of past residents.

The album closes with two songs that tackle the subject of mortality from slightly different angles.  Brian Pearson’s Dead Funny takes an amusingly accurate view of everyone’s inevitable rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. I love the line: “You won’t be there, or indeed anywhere, unaware of your own non-existence.” It observes that whilst your birth may have been ridiculously unlikely, your demise is a dead cert!  The final track, A Life Lived Well, carries on with the mortality theme with an expression of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live, whilst pointing out how slowly time seems to pass when we’re young, but how quickly it races by as we age.

Cats Of Coven Lawn is a landmark album.  Its LoFi and doggedly homemade production, along with its spontaneity and sincerity won’t appeal to all, but, to those who love and respect our musical traditions, enjoy a good story and are in touch with the values that Frankie Armstrong expresses so eloquently, these will be rightly recognized as great strengths.

Watch the video of A Life Lived Well, the closing track to the album, here:

Frankie Armstrong Online: Website / Facebook / Youtube

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