A consummate celebration of nature, a marriage of words, music and illustration, bringing back together an ‘A team’ of performers to reprise the unrepriseable in Spell Songs II.
Release Date: 10th December 2021
Label: Quercus (Thirty Tigers)
Format: CD, Digital
If there is any sense of catnip in the folk world and to folk performers, surely the words ‘collaboration’ and ‘project’ would be high in the list, a world apart from the competitive cut and thrust of other popular music. Which is, of course, a ridiculous generalisation but, in the way of all generalisations, seems to have some gravity. And is, arguably, borne out by this collective of the great and good, reprising their earlier collegiate opus, 2018’s The Lost Words: Spell Songs.
That project, curated and commissioned by Hertfordshire folk festival, Folk By the Oak, brought together an enviable ensemble of singers and players to interpret the illustrated writings of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. The Lost Words: A Spell Book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Morris, published in 2017, was and still is what the Guardian has called a “cultural phenomenon“, the spells being poems, each designed to reawaken any lost sense of wonder in the majesty, magic and strangeness of the natural world. Spell Songs put those ‘spells’ to music and was widely, very widely acclaimed, and rightly so, bringing together the cream of these countries finest performers. When Macfarlane and Morris more recently brought out a further volume, The Lost Spells, concentrating this time giving specific voice and presence to, largely, chosen individual members of the animal and plant kingdoms, it would have been rude not to repeat the process.
So, a long but necessary preamble, important as it gives light on the importance of Macfarlane and Morris to the project, being every bit as integral as the performers, equal collaborators both to the process, key core members of the ‘band’, if you will, rather than just distant and disengaged source material.
What performers you ask, understandably impatiently, especially if unaware of the earlier piece of work? Well, how about Julie Fowlis, the doyenne of Gaelic song, and Karine Polwart, her lowland Scots compatriot, as canny with words as her strong, distinctive voice. Add in Kris Drever, the Orcadian singer and guitarist, stalwart of Lau, and the remarkable Senegalese kora player, Seckou Keita, an honorary Brit these days, based in Nottingham, celebrated for his music with the Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch. Harp duties here, for there are such, are provided by Rachel Newton, who adds also her voice to the proceedings, the team rounded up by Beth Porter, on cello, and the multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux, as at home on keyboards as he is on all manner of percussion, being also an experienced producer and arranger. I think it says something that this is exactly the same team that put together the 2018 album, even down to having the same producer, Andy Bell.
The first spell is cast by Karine Polwart, whose warm tones cut through a gentle background drone and chiming harp, before Porter’s cello weaves additional magic into the structure. A delightful start, that builds, with keyboards and guitar, Fowlis adding an intriguing brief middle section, imitating the song of a Song Thrush, baffling at first exposure, beguilingly apt on repeat. She then gets the opportunity to take centre stage for the beautiful St Kilda Wren, sung, appropriately, in her native Gaelic, over a simple backdrop of, initially, just plucked guitar and harmony vocals. The sturdier tones of Drever then weigh in for Oak, drums adding to the sense of solidity imbued by the words of the song.
And this is much how it follows, 15 tracks in all, the singers taking turns to take up the reins, the backing musicians never less than exemplary. Indeed, all 7 performers get to sing at least one song, with allows for a collusion of contrasts, relieving any sense of safety in singularity. Rachel Newton gets to cover Swifts And Curlew, the sense of the former evoked by swooping swathes of synth around her harp and vocal, the latter one of the more pin-dropping moments of beauty in this record. Beth Porter’s rendition of Daisy is a quirky delight of harmonies, oddly, recalling the Andrews Sisters, were they also Macbeth’s three witches, this sense lingering into Gorse, the other female voices crooning behind her less structured lead vocal. Keita even gets a couple of songs, his timbre offering an umami palate cleanser, the rhythmic call and response of Jay an especial joy, with his kora tumbling between the verses, perfectly aligned to Porter’s cello. Likewise, on Barn Owl, as Fowlis invokes a Gaelic spoken word introduction, Keita’s voice, in his Senegalese language, is the very personification of the nighttime bird, flitting between the trees in the dark. Molyneux, whose intermittent percussion is never less than nuanced, his range of keyboards providing appropriate atmospheres, has just the one lead, on the deceptively slight Swallow, with echoes of, of all people, a gentler Sam Smith.
Fowlis, Polwart and Drever, of course, get greater opportunities to shine. Fowlis adds an icy beauty to Bird Of The Blizzard, a delicious piano ballad, she now singing in English, as well as wrapping up proceedings with Silver Birch, a consummate masterclass in restrained delivery. Thrift (Dig in, Dig In) gifts Polwart with the sort of narrative she excels at, whereas Moth is every bit as fragile and ethereal as the subject, and is another high watermark here. Drever, whose voice is sometimes thinner than my personal preferences, demonstratively disallows any such criticism here, with Red Is Your Art, about the fox, as confident a vocal he has ever offered, up there with the best of his forbears, comparison with Davy Steele coming to my mind.
Now it may be that this could all sound like a procession of solo turns in the spotlight, but nothing could be further from that truth, so well constructed and thought through is the instrumental spine. I have to say it is Porter’s cello and the sometime indistinguishable, sometimes paired harp and kora of Newton and Keita that stick most firmly in my ears, but, really, it is when all join in together that this record most sings. It is all too obvious this came together organically, and collectively, rather than through any remote phoning in; all nine of them convened at Greta Hall, in the Lake District, during the spring of this year, to hew and hone the varied spells. That experience shows itself in the cohesion of the entirety, with no loose ends, add-ons or sore thumbs. A terrific end-of-year treat, and one that could or should have just about time to feature in many a Christmas stocking.
In the lavishly illustrated 48 page booklet that comes with the disc, you’ll find all the words of each spell, in, where used, all the languages present. Yes, please!
The lyrics are now available on their website: https://www.thelostwords.org/spellsongsii-lyrics/
As an added delight, next year will see the live premiere, ahead, even, of the planned performance at next year’s Folk By The Oak, in July, as a short tour has been arranged for the tail-end of January.
27/1/22: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (as part of Celtic Connections.)
28/1/22: Perth Concert Hall
29/1/22: Sage, Gateshead
30/1/22: Symphony Hall, B’ham
31/1/22 and 1/2/22: Cadogan Hall, London (with Robert McFarlane)
Here is a taster, Oak, with Kris Drever on vocals: