A showstopping extravaganza of history and songs, singing and strings that nails this duo as a pairing to watch. And listen.
Release Date: 25th November 2022
Label: Ròs Dearg
Format: CD / digital
It seems a mere moment ago I was extolling a fine wee EP on these pages, one A Happy Place, by Rachel Walker, with sterling support from Aaron Jones. As ever, looking back, it was a tad longer, and now, nine months down the line, Aaron’s official and the duo have only gone and produced a full length collaboration, proving, beyond doubt, that the pairing was no one-trick (pair of) ponies. If there were any critique of the earlier recording, it might be the sense of fragility, actually part of the charm. Well, this is as far from fragile as you can get, ten songs of confident prog-folk. Prog-folk? Undoubtedly, as you check out the arrangements and signatures. Plus, of course, a concept, in this case a celebration a selection of under-celebrated yet influential women, all sprung from various stages of Scottish history. Heady stuff, a step undreamt of back in February. Don’t believe me?
First track, Sgàthach (the Shadowy One) commemorates a warrior queen of the 1300s, so fierce that all the menfolk flocked to her to learn the art of war. This gentle song turns more to her character, celebrating the strenth in that, and of all women, of giving and nurturing, seeking nothing in return. Of course, being in the Gaelic, you, or most, will have to take my word for that. A haunting and ethereal melody, embedded in an eerie backdrop of synthesised shimmer, and some beautiful piano, with the repeated descending pattern quite glorious. Duncan Lyall provides the synth, to Walker’s piano and voice, Jones playing some understated guitar as anchor. Fast forward through the centuries, and the duo next celebrate a far more recent presence, the artist Maud Sulter, an individual who sought to refocus the place of Black and Asian art into even recent history, rather than the well-kept and hidden secret shown and known only to the few. Thin Black Line is vibrant and percussive phase and hosts flashbacks to early Jethro Tull. Or even the recent orchestral Tull release, given this has the sterling presence of a stellar string quartet. OK, the stellar string quartet, with Patsy Reid and Alice Allan, who have graced so many records I have raved about this year, joined here by Katrina Lee and Rhoslyn Lawton, the arrangement by the incomparable Seonaid Aitken. Jones plays cittern and sings with his agreeably dusty tenor, a little more gravel than with his “other band” Old Blind Dogs, Walker on keyboards and Lyall now his trusty double bass.
Back to the Gaelic for Laoidh Nam Ban, a song partly based upon the writing of the bard, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, a poem of the same name, and translating as Hymn of the Women, here of a pair of intrepid female explorers, one of her native country, the other of further afield. (I should add the accompanying booklet carries detailed notes about all the subjects, their inspiration and why.) It is a sparse piano piece, very much hymnal in style, with another glorious string setting sweeping in, this time Walker’s own, and the mood is of a spectral beacon from afar. Jones then chooses Mary Somerville as one of his choices, for the apt Crescent And Stars, given her work, amongst other fields, in astronomy and the skies. Starting with a some melodic picking on his trusty cittern,there is an overall woozy shimmer, electric piano providing the element of space, for the strings to waft convincingly around. The swell is tremendous, the two singers harmonising in, yes, a heavenly fashion.
Gormshùil Mhòr is a spookier construct, as befits the subject, the Great Gormula of Moy, who even gets to have her own wiki page. Loosely speaking a witch, witches were a big thing in Scotland, as another album of last year taught us. If the most trad sounding tune here, it is again the arrangement that gives it some quirky touches that belie the tradition altogether. Another Walker/An Tuairneir co-write, the contrast between the compositions of the highland Gael, Walker, and the lowland Scot, Jones, is quite apparent, yet never jarring, a mutually cumulative arrangement. So it another Jones track, Iron Bands, that follows, albeit with Walker on vocals, her clarion clarity over a woozy synthesised swirl, the whole akin to some of Sting’s initial solo releases. The Iron Bands relate to the role of women in th eoverthrow of slavery.
Jones is back on vocals for Bessie Miller, an entrepreneurial Orcadian fishwife, who made her living by “selling” the surety of a safe passage for the fisherman, in the form of a fart into their cupped hands. An appropriately jolly and robust song, it is an engaging ditty and a thought provoking idea, it is one of the few songs without the string section, maybe for fear of gilding the wind. A more serious piece next, another Walker/An Tuairneir composition, Riabhag Bheag (Little Sparrow), which signals the work of one Margaret Fay Shaw, from Pennsylvania, who on having had to give up playing music, sought to collect and collate the music of others. In her case this meant transplanting to the Uists’s and immersing herself in the culture of the Gaels. Her archive lives on as testimony to her and the music of the Isles. Elegiac piano and strings frame a Dennyesque vocal and it is absolutely sublime.
Into the home straits, and it’s Sunflowers, Jones’ paean to the Suffrage movement. His warm voice and guitar open, before the whole ensemble drop in, in a slowly expanding canvas. I guess, if I am looking for comparisons, I might seek out ex-Battlefield Bander, Brian MacNeill, if smoother in timbre, but whose 1991, Back O’ The North Wind, with a similar historical bent, would make a handsome companion to this. The final song is then the striking tale of Eilidh MacDougall, a champion of the rights of abused women, and the first police commissioner for women in the metropolitan police. Entitled Rule of Thumb, I entice you to explore where this everyday phrase first arose, and it may shock and surprise you not a little. It did me. Walker steps up a gear for this song, a rhythmic propulsion of her own indignation, the strings sawing away like the ELO, something I didn’t expect ever to be writing. Blooming well works for her, though!
This album really made me sit up and notice, expecting it to be good, but not this good, the duo having seemingly swiftly melded into a tight as this pairing, bolstering hopes for future collaborations and, hopefully, some gigs. Get Lyall and the string section on board and on the road and they’ll raise a few eyebrows. Unsurprisingly, Celtic Connections have snapped them up for just that, on the first of February next year. Sticking with the album, I have probably failed to mention how handsome is the packaging, with detailed blurbs on each of the songs and the characters mentioned, with tremendous artwork for every track, all specially commissioned for this project, lovingly made by Walker’s Lochaber fellow resident, Ali Berardelli. The video still below shows the quality and standard of her illustrative skills.
Here’s that opening track, Sgàthach: