Eliza Carthy – Queen Of The Whirl: Album Review 

Glorious reframing of her own idiosyncratic selection of choice cuts

Release Date: 11th November 2022

Label: HemHem records

Format: CD, vinyl

30 years says the publicity, for 30 years the divine Ms C. has been wreaking her force on nature upon the listening public, across a wealth of recordings and a multitude of performances, always a delight, often a shock and seldom the same. The most grizzled of us will remember her as an elfin-faced nymph, sneaking into the family firm, as a Waterdaughter, that brief offshoot that featured her mother, Norma Waterson, her auntie Lal and her cousin Marry. Eliza was 13 and hasn’t stopped since, it being some astonishment to note she is still 3 years short her half century. Through Blue Murder, duos with Nancy Kerr, with her mother, with her father, with both her parents (as Waterson-Carthy), ever onward she has swept, with a host of solo bands and projects along the way, the names of the band changing as often as the colour of her hair. Which doesn’t even touch on her collaborative works: The Imagined Village, Songs Of Separation, Oysterband Big Session, the Mermaid Avenue sessions (Woody Guthrie), with Billy Bragg and Wilco being just a few, as well as being someone as happy singing for Paul Weller as she is for ATB favourites, The Barsteward Sons of Val Doonican. Busy or what, snarfing up a CBE, and a MBE, along the way!

It is largely her own work that she celebrates here, with her current players, the Restitute, helping her revisit, recalibrate, refashion and rejoice these 15 new versions. No mere copycat session for licensing purposes and royalty accumulation, although the latter won’t be unwelcome, these are brand new iterations to keep and compare with the originals, often, in my humble, surpassing those earlier works. As is the way of these things, many the songs have been creeping out over the summer, as a run of EPs, three volumes thus far, with the final, and the collected LP, due sometime between just about now and the middle of next months, there seeming variable reports. Itchy ears?

Everything kicks off with Whirly Whorl, a clipped guitar intro sending a false direction, ahead of breaking into a lively blast of ye olde folk rock, the electric guitar, David Delarre and piano, Phil Alexander, especially effective, her fiddle and voice, along with Saul Rose’s distinctive melodeon, making for a lively canter. She has never sounded younger, the version quite different from the brassy jaunt of her 1997 version, which, notekeepers, also featured Rose as one of her Kings of Calicutt. Next it is the trad. arr. staple of The Snow It Melts The Soonest, played for the full moody. With sonorous guitar and gloomy organ introducing it, here Carthy channels her voice into the full Norma, a mature and experienced voice of reason. Moving into a progression that reeks of prog, slow and measured, and that could grace many a 7’0s gatefold, or even hark back to an alternate take of the Horslips version, the drums of Willy Molleson are, literally, all over the shop, neither quite bringing it together nor losing it either. (This is, I think, praise.) I remember being shocked by The Company Of Men when it first appeared on her Angels & Cigarettes album of 2000, blow jobs and the like seeming too ostentatiously lad-ette for my sensitive ears. Here it makes for far more sense, a wry tale of possible embitterment and frustration, taken at the speed of disappointment, the instrumental backing adding to that flavour. Jacky Tar closes the first EP, and marries the lively shanty-style vocal with a contrasting picked guitar setting, before the fiddle and box conjure up a riot of dancing pirates. Again the difference from the more orthodox received folk she gave in 1996 is striking.

Red’s Stumbling On offers a burst of ramshackle pub rock, the squeezebox, piano and fiddle evocative of Slim Chance, the busy and clumsy arrangement wonderfully apt. Definitely one to watch out for in the live shows that follow this release, it seems closer in spirit to the original version, by her aunt, Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight, certainly than the funky shades she added to her own earlier go. Mohair manages the trick of being both sad and jolly at once, steering, for me, a little close to a “song from the shows” in style and presentation, which, were it not her vocal, could come straight from musical theatre. My bad, as this is a direction she has long been following, recent outings heavy on Brecht and Weill tropes, especially as she follows this by the ghastliness of Mr Magnifico, spoken interlude and all, this coming from Molleson. In truth, it is better than the last time she did this, and, by squinting a little, if I imagine it as Alex Harvey grand guignol, suddenly it sits a whole lot better. I guess a Pete Seeger song might court less controversy, as she reprises her contribution to Where Have All The Flowers Gone, a collection of artists playing tribute to him. Astonishingly, this too, by possible over close association, smacks also of a mash-up between Mack The Knife and Next. Except it is absolutely bloomin’ brilliant, the guitar solo by Delarre incandescent. Explain that to me, someone.

Who remembers how alien (sorry!) Space Girl seemed, lyrically at least, on the second full outing by the Imagined Village. Here that feel is maintained, but the more organic arrangement here accentuates the whimsy, drawing out the Hall Of The Mountain King reference, as well as giving a sly look back to Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. Possibly just my ears and odd frames of reference, but, if intended, more please. Two Tears is one of the most recent songs, if still 11 years old. Unusually, I prefer the original, perhaps the sole song where I do, it suiting the sparser arrangement. And, yes, I am aware it is another Weimar-esque tune, as my prejudices fragment, they positively disintegrating for Blood In My Boots, which is the most pronounced yet of this manifestion of her style, the tinkling piano imprinting rigidly in earworm. Damn your eyes, Carthy, you’ve turned me.

The 4th and final EP spares further distress and is a stately faux baroque and (folk) rock caper through Pretty Ploughboy. a mention here, belatedly, for Ben Seal’s bass, generally as unobtrusive as classy bass playing should be, here popping his head just up over the parapet, outlining how essential he is to the mix. Little need to change much from the Anglicana version, other than to lose the more experimental percussion. Originally on the same album, London So Fair, is almost a different song, if so clearly the same, the keyboard dominance of the original ditched for a fuller, if still spare arrangement. Keyboard is still there, but Carthy’s fiddle occupies a more central pivot, with perhaps the sweetest short set of soloing anywhere this year. A grower, it may divide some listeners, but, in the way of all epic distressed sailor ballads, it seeps into your soul. Accordion Song is still what it has always said on the lid. Very Edward II in style, folk reggae at its skanking best, it is Alexander on the instrument in question, here and throughout, and it is a simpler and less self-conscious version. Which leads to the closer, here dedicated to the memory of her mother, the incomparable Norma. (Except her daughter actually has offered here a pretty damn fine comparison, that should/would make either proud.) Also in commemoration to the Mighty Sparrow himself, Slinger Francisco, who wrote and recorded the song first, in 1968. Hence the “Slinger and Norma go to the dancehall mix”. Raking in a whole host of extra chums to add extra vocals: Boden and Spiers, Sheema Mukherjee, Rory MacLeod and Lane Steinberg, the Sparrow’s bandleader, it would be churlish, if not downright rude, not to find pleasure in it, especially the high and unclaimed whistle part. An uplifting finale to this bewitching and enriching release. Not only has she drawn attention to her back catalogue, she has excelled herself in the reawakening she has gifted the songs. And, hell, if she can cause the occasional cloth-eared naysayer to renege on his views, win, win, she must be doing something right!

The tour? Here:

23/11/22: Masham Town Hall

24/11/22: Diss Corn Hall

25/11/22: Howard Assembly Rooms (Leeds)

26/11/22: Ludlow Assembly Rooms

28/11/22: Glee Club, B’ham2

9/11/22: Komedia, Brighton3

0/11/22: Glee Club, Cardiff

1/12/22: Turner Sims Hall, So’ton

3/12/22: Sage, Gateshead

4/12/22: Band on the Wall, Manchester

5/12/22: Junction 1, Cambridge

And some music a taster, that prog-psych The Snow That Melts The Soonest:

Eliza Carthy online: website / Facebook / Twitter / instagram

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