Hannah Rarity – To Have You Near: Album Review

Hannah Rarity releases To Have You Near where crystalline vocals take on serious themes with exquisite instrumental backing.

Release date: 3rd June 2022

Label: Self Released (Bandcamp)

Format: CD / Digital

Well, if one thing’s for sure, there seems currently no ‘rarity’ (oh, my sides) of silver tongued singers emanating from Scotland these past few years, with Hannah, if not the latest, certainly now beginning to get the acclaim well deserved. (Perhaps and hopefully making her as wealthy as were she to get a guinea for every time she’s heard my rib-tickling play on her name!) This is actually her second solo release, at barely thirty years old, and her work with others has been raising her profile a good deal recently. Appearing both on the latest record by Niteworks, reviewed here, and the recent release by Rura, Our Voices Echo, each band giants in the ever enlarging field of how to spin new magic into the traditional legacy of Scottish music, this was where my ears first pricked up toward her.

More a Scot than a Gael, this album follows on from both of these collaborations and from 2019’s Neath The Gloaming Star, a runner up in MG Alba Scots Music Trad awards of that year, having been also been awarded BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2018. Her voice has drawn comparisons with the likes of Cara Dillon, no small praise, and, able to draw on a mix of traditional material, judiciously chosen covers and her own songs, she rightfully deserves a place on and under anyone’s spotlight.

This release brings back the same production team of Iain Hutchison on mixing and Innes White (Staran, Assynt), the much in demand guitar toter, on production. He also plays acoustic guitar. Whilst on musicians, the album is graced by John Lowrie (Blue Rose Code, Adam Holmes) on keyboards and Scott Mackay (Mànran) on drums and percussion. Hardest working man in Scotland, Breabach’s James Lindsay picks up bass duties, both electric and stand-up. Plus, she is lucky enough to have the A team on strings, as so recently mentioned in Heidi Talbot’s album review, Seonaid Aitken’s crack team of Alice Allen on cello, Katrina Lee on violin, herself on first violin and the wonder of Patsy Reid on viola, their presence always a guarantee of glorious arrangements.

Proving herself slave to no one genre, the first song, Home, is decidedly jazzy, the drums a hypnotic underswell as the strings billow around Rarity’s smooth and creamy vocal. Lindsay’s bass is characteristically sumptuous. A personal song about, well, home and what it means, it is a Rarity co-write, with Gordon Maclean, and hooks you into the record instantly. My Friend has the feel of an old country ballad, a slowly swaying beaut of a number, one to catch the sounds of pins dropping to it. With an almost wartime to it: “We’ll meet again“, even, it is a song of loss, but relating to these past two years of restrictions. The tempo lifts, if not the mood, with some bubbling piano. A verse and the rhythm section bed in, Rarity still a clear and confident commentator. By Gerry O’Beirne, it is an unashamed paean for his Co. Clare homeland. Possibly capable of mawkishness in clumsier hands, the string section add nuance rather than cliché. the whole a simple and (slightly) sentimental song well sung.

If, like me, you see the name of Boo Hewerdine as a sign of a certain arbiter of the taste behind song choices, a new song of his, written with Rarity, comes next, Mr H also on backing vocals. Unsurprisingly, it is a gem, a lullaby, I’m Not Going Anywhere. This had me holding my breath as the chorus crept in, more of Lowrie’s gorgeous piano a constant current. Woo and, indeed, hoo, a showstopper. To follow that with the well known standard, Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More, might seem brave, not least given the gamut of other interpretations from Jennifer Warnes, Nanci Griffith and Dolly Parton. And Bob Dylan, of course. So no pressure, then? Actually not, her soft voice a perfect instrument to mix well with the hopefulness of the lyric: it reminding me of Eddi Reader’s Burns interpretations. Another cover, this time of Tom Waits, sticks with the mood, if breaking the moment, one of Waits’ more melancholic moments, with Rarity’s clarity expunging the throaty rumble of the original, allowing a greater attention to the words. One for my chums at Cover Me Songs, I feel.

She Must Be Mad is another song written by Rarity, a song about self-esteem and how, especially, women operating outside the tight defines of society get labelled. With yet more immersion in the string arrangement of Aitken, it is a thoughtful song that, well, isn’t wrong. Gordon Maclean again steps up to co-write Kaleidoscope. a song about dementia. And, if this is all sounding more than a little heavy, the palate is washed out by a stunning interpretation of the late Davy Steele’s Scotland Yet. Sure, you don’t have to be a Scot, but it helps, and is a lovely version, yet another thumbs up for Lindsay’s bass.

The whole project is wound up with another song with a message. Which makes me think, as the first time I listened, I was unaware of the context of the songs, just appreciating the melodies and the constructions. If possible, cast the verbiage here aside, as you first listen, so as to take the music at face (ear?) value, rather than via the intrinsic worthiness of the content. To say this closer is about HIV and AIDS may somehow colour your acceptance of what is, straightforwardly, a beautiful song, with maybe that knowledge better to learn subsequently. Yes, of course it’s an important subject, the lyrics sensitive, but that is, surely, secondary? It is by Julie Matthews, by the way, so the pedigree can be assured.

I like this record. She sings superbly and the production and the arrangements are glorious. It could do with being, perhaps, a little more fun, fewer, maybe, important topics, but, again, they are important and, if this is what she needs to raise, fair play. As a mere shallow male, I love the tunes and to be bathed by the balm of her voice and her accompanists.

Here’s a stripped back rendition of Scotland Yet, just Rarity and White:

Hannah Rarity: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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