Ruth Angell – Hlywing: Album Review

A solo debut from Ruth Angell which redefines sublime.

Release Date: 3rd February 2023

Label: Talking Elephant

Format: digital / CD

The multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter career of Ruth Angell has seen her working with such illustrious artists as Rufus Wainwright, Andrea Begley, Ashley Hutchings, Terry Reid, Becky Mills, Jim Moray, Jo Hamilton and many more.

In fact, it’s a resounding testimonial from The Guv’nor (Ashley Hutchings should anyone be unaware) that lavishes praise on Hlywing – “a truly wonderful album…an important collaborator…her talent as a singer, songwriter and musician is plain for all to see.” Thanks, Ashley for such rousing words, which simply leave us to say “what he said,” press play and report back on the set of originals plus one Joni Mitchell cover through which runs a peaceful calm and sense of dignity.

For the record and to save any embarrassing attempts at pronunciation…meaning ‘shelter’ and pronounced ‘Huh – lee – weenguh’ this album is Ruth’s first as a solo artist. And it’s a debut that is of unquestionable quality and finesse. Careful and precise in the arrangements with painstaking attention to the lyrical details and themes, each track comes embellished with inspiration from nature (birds and water play a key role) and the ever-changing landscape around Ruth’s home and on her travels. The nod to Joni and the influence of such an iconic musician will not be lost on listeners. Her Magdalene Laundries highlights the plight of the unfortunate women of Twentieth Century Ireland; the Magdalene laundries being a desperate and unforgiving shelter for fallen, unfortunate women whose suffering plays out on a version that drips with empathy.

As a marker, it sets a high standard that is maintained and often surpassed. While not a concept album as such, Ruth admits to the title ‘shelter’ being the key word as she explores places of refuge, safety, beauty, melancholy and the value of family. The closeness of the title to ‘holywing’ also conjures connotations of what she describes as “someone sheltering under huge beautiful wings – maybe an angel if you’re religious.” It’s a comforting thought that’s a constant presence while listening to the songs play out.

A strong musical squadron provides the spectrum of instrumentation and brings to life the arrangements which are built on some effective yet restrained string settings; the canvas that carries the combination of personal insights and a tad of traditional storytelling. Not least on the rumbling folk rock on Three Stags which combines childhood memories and indeed fears with folklore and local legend. Her son Elvin too is a strong presence; even his “It’s not quite Gran Canaria,” making the lyric on The Boathouse.

The topical plight of refugees is highlighted in the early album highlight Little Boy Blue. The nursery rhyme title is the ideal foil for a song that reminds of Elbow’s Great Expectations, soaked in empathy and pathos and grace and fragility of Garvey and his pals from Bury. Treasure combines nature, Elvin and Roald Dahl with more philosophical thoughts of the fragility of life. Given a gentle Eagles-style electric Country Rock swing and combined with Magdalene Laundries is clear evidence of increasing confidence and boldness.

Yet having said that, the spot is well and truly hit and heartstrings are plucked with a rare tenderness with the combination of No Roses (where Ruth adds a tune to Christina Rosetti’s poem) and In The Vale Of Contemplation. Both are exquisitely played and sung and having slightly obsessed over the wonderful Little Boy Blue (and its sentiment) on early listens, it pales now given the emotional pull of these two pieces. It’s a hard heart that’s not touched by these seven and a half minutes of music and words. AND – the latter should surely topple Enya in the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack as Frodo heads off to the undying lands…

Is there a sense of hiding her light under a bushel, content with playing a supportive role, all the while developing a rare songwriting skill? Maybe we can forgive when Hlywingis the result. A set that proves a case of quality over quantity and a stunning example of what can be fitted into just over a half hour.

Hlywing may have pushed a reluctant Ruth Angell into the spotlight – albeit one that casts a sepia hue rather than glaring light – yet belies the treasure of what lies beneath. This is only the beginning; further immersion seems set to reveal deeper insight. It’s quite apt that the curtain falls on In The Vale Of Contemplation. For Hlywing contains the soundtrack for such a place. An exemplary debut.

Here’s Castle On The Hill, of which Ruth says: “The song was written about Riber Castle when I was travelling home to Derbyshire from the city, the sense of peace and calm the countryside provided after the hustle and bustle of city life. I always think of my Dad who is a huge fan of the Curlew when I sing this song.”

Ruth Angell online: Website / Twitter / Instagram

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