Old dogs, new tricks? Don’t believe a word, of course you can!
Release Date: 4th November 2022
Label: Collective/Perspective Records
One thing I failed to find, when this band first put out their run of EPs, and the subsequent collected volume was quite what was a Magpie Arc. Arguably unimportant in the big theme of things, but, you know, we folkies like to know these things, and none of the then reviews could spell it out for me. And, despite exhaustive searches, I remain none the wiser, if enormously more knowledgeable about pica pica than before, all the tales from drops of the devil’s blood to perching on Noah’s mast. But, two for joy, here is the second full-length release (counting the 3 EPs as one job lot) from this formidable band. Defiantly a band, not a collective, not a project, none of that modern mullarkey, they are a band. Plug in and play, which is exactly what they do, this time turned up to 11.
Punters initially seemed surprised that Martin Simpson actually knew what an electric guitar was, given his reputation and his past output, let alone could play it really rather well. It was a bit like discovering that Johnny Ramone was a whizz on the lute. Which he wasn’t, but Simpson showed his fingers as adept with the electric as his trusty acoustic, as well as casting broad hints as to what he might be listening to in his downtime. Given the reception of the EP bundle, there was also maybe some frisson that this would be a flash-in-the-pan event, this was put well to pay as the quintet hit the road for a run of summer festivals. And then gave out the teasers for this. With Adam Holmes no longer present, his John Martyn-esque tones replaced by the deeper burr of Findlay Napier, the band retains a solid frontline of singers, with the ever-pristine larynx of Nancy Kerr, continuing to swap lead with Simpson and, now, Napier. She also gets to play some of her reliably fulsome fiddle. Which isn’t to forget the remarkable Tom A. Wright also sings. And drums, plays guitars, keyboards, pedal steel and, oo-er, programming. He also produced the record, for good measure. Rounding out the band is the lively electric bass of Alex Hunter. Styling themselves as “your new favourite cross-border folk-rock band,” I wondered if Glamour In The Grey might be a sly reference to their, um, maturity, but a quick scan of their fizzogs suggests little of that colour in their hair, those that still have it, and there is certainly some raffish appeal in their appearances. (It is in the lyric of one of the songs!)
Smashing the doors down, All I Planted hurls out the traps in a maelstrom of clanging guitars and fiddle, Wright’s drums a glorious din and clatter. Kerr takes the lead for this, her own song, it all coming over as a banshee mode Maddy Prior fronting the Levellers. The fellas add suitable backing vocal flourish, as Simpson pulls some twisty, turny phrases out of his axe, adding a sense of danger to the mix. A mighty start, with an abrupt switch of style into the ominous sequenced bassline throb of Napier’s Don’t Leave The Door Open, a politicised song of Scottish Independence, where the writer sounds, in both timbre and treaty, redolent of the great Dick Gaughan. An impassioned song, the backing is a heady mix of electronic and electric, the guitar solo positively incandescent, and it seems a timely response to any other songs about leaving doors open, Richard (or Homer). Simpson then steps up to the mike for the pre-released Pans Of Biscuits, a traditional American song, done as only he can, the added band dynamic polishing up his trademark gritty. Pans Of Biscuits, the title, suffers only, and that not much, from the lost in translation of the lyric, pairing biscuits with gravy, as they do. (I know they aren’t, but am I alone in thinking of ginger nuts and bisto?) His voice just gets better and better, more and more pained, with Kerr’s fiddle divine, and the undersweep of organ a perfect extra ornamentation.
Wassail is more in the vein of ye olde folk rock, but with a little more heft than the usual culprits might provide. Kerr on lead vocal, the Steeleye/Fairport comparisons are clearly here to the fore, the rippling guitar decidedly evocative of one RT, if the chugging second (third?) guitar accompaniment a lot heavier, Maaart apart, than either band ever produced. The most predictable song in the set, it is followed by the least, a tough rocker from Napier, Tough As Teddy Taylor, he near spitting out the vocal, as the rhythm section crank out a mood of smoke and water, a reference that becomes quite apparent as the riffing unfurls. I hope Simpson is gurning during this one, and throwing appropriate shapes. The more delicate Long Gone follows, starting with a west coast harmony vocal, the bubbling bass of Hunter rippling, as shards of steel cut across the backdrop. The sense of something brewing slowly up a storm materialises, with a dreamy guitar interlude, the organ a mirror pool of atmosphere, before it suddenly segues into Gay Goshawk, back into folk-rock central. The shimmery mandola-like playing contrasts with the echoed fuzz of the guitars. (Could this be the Fylde beltar? If so, this is Adam Holmes making a brief guest spot, he being listed as playing this instrument somewhere on the album, about which I can find nothing online.)
I Ain’t Going Nowhere has a slightly bluesy feel, with hints of both ragtime and silver bands about the overall arrangement, the combination a heady and pleasant swirl. Lovely organ again, Mr Wright. The lights then go back off, and we are back in the deep dark woods. A threatening version of Mike Waterson’s Jack Frost unfolds, lots of echo, some disarming gypsy fiddle and, the master stroke, guitar played through an effects pedal, simulating a Leslie speaker, so redolent of the psychedelic 60s. With Simpson again at his pained vocal best, he then switches into a more orthodox and almost Gilmouresque solo that closes the song. (Guitar groupies, the picture below is of Mr Simpson’s array of effects and pedals!)
With just one song left, how do the band close proceedings? With the myriad styles and scenarios thus far, it would seem foolhardy to guess. So, when the familiar tune of Cutty Wren cuts through, it is like an old friend. At first anyway, with the echoed judder of the power chord, at the end of every line, showing this is a heavier beast than we know, the momentum slowly building, expecting and inviting some manic breakdown. But it just stops, which is somehow better, leaving appetites well and truly whetted, hungry for more.
In a year of very good releases, this end of year gem is surely one of the delights. Here’s hoping this a unit that has legs and can last, certainly into the next year and another summer of live shows. All busy in their own right, the front line all with active solo careers to nurture, let alone any number of other collaborations, it must be a logistic nightmare for Hunter, also their manager, to keep held together. But, boy, is it worth it! And, final point: PLAY LOUD!
Here’s that first track: