Salt House – Riverwoods: Album Review

Re-wilding their native rivers provides the fishy inspiration for Salt House, who continue to make a resounding and resonant case for their feast of songs and musical fare.

Release date: 10th March 2023

Label: Hudson Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

There are few things finer in this life than the Atlantic salmon, that “incredible species, migrating thousands of miles during their lifetimes, before returning to the rivers where they hatched, to spawn the next generation”. That I would append “on a plate” to that first sentence may not quite be the point of this album, but nonetheless. Never shy to ally their work to a project, Salt House, that trio of consummate fiddle, guitar and voice based musics, have here taken their inspiration from the project to re-wild Scotland and a TV series, Scotland: The Big Picture. For salmon are in decline, only 3% returning, after that spawn, and hence to the rivers of Scotland. Hence the foreward in the liner notes, from Peter Cairns, executive director of Scotland: The Big Picture, also the name of the project, and hence the eight songs and tunes presented here.

If you think Salt House need a project, you’d be wrong, of course, they don’t, having shown their class across four full-length outings and an EP these last 10 years. But it does no harm, as you feast your ears, to think about the fish on your plate; not all of them should have to come from the sometimes unsavoury environment of intensive fish farming. Even if that farm were owned by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. (And which, I should add, he no longer owns, having got rid in the ’90s.) Produced here by Andy Bell once more, his third time of working with the band, the band remain Lauren MacColl, on fiddle and vocals, Ewan McPherson, on guitar and vocals, and Jenny Sturgeon on guitar, keyboards and vocals. All each play a bit of synthesizer, as indeed does Bell, with McPherson filling out the scape with bass and mandolin. Let’s head upstream and see where the journey begins.

Her Silver Spate starts with a flurry of tinkling sounds and some bowed strings, much like the sounds of an orchestra tuning up, which, I guess, represents the mass hatching, before the song proper kicks off. The vocals are light and airy, over a backing of still tinkling notes, a combination of plucked and keyed, with a strong elongated viola notes giving a sense of direction. Altogether lively and bubbly, there is a feeling of purpose. The Dipper, an instrumental track which follows, carries that rich viola tone onward, with the twin guitars tumbling below it. With synthesiser tones giving the feel and sounds of a stream, as it flows gradually toward the sea, the banks ever widening, the Dipper is actually a riverside bird. Reliant on the biodiversity the salmon provides, with the alevins becoming fry and the parent fishes dying and decaying, all of this is tasty food for these bankside birdies. It is a tasty tune, too.

Unspoken Waters begins with the warning notes of the guitars, MacColl again launching off with some rich tones on her fiddle, a violin this time, the tune gradually jumping a gear and becoming more insistent, fighting against the current. Some mandolin then takes the strain, alongside some burbling synth. The plucked strings chime and jangle, the whole an effervescent cocktail. McPherson takes the vocal lead for Birch Leads, and has a warmly resonant voice, all the better as his two bandmates slot in alongside on some evocative harmony. The gentle whirr of synth and a backdrop of harmonium combine to embed the voices and stringed instrumentation, piano then playing the same tune as the fiddle for a joyful musical middle eight. This is an instant winner, the melody imprinting quickly, and acts as a mid-project high point.

Another instrumental, River Redds, uses the Scots word redd, roughly translating as rid, as in to rid onseself, and thus cleanse, roughly how a rich flora and fauna allows the river to remain healthy. Over plucked strings, the fiddle dances, before a second guitar led tune jousts with it, the two then conjoining, repeating over several bars, building and strengthening. Some bass notes and a choral chanted backdrop slowly emerges, giving a timeless and ageless feel, ahead a more solemn close. The Loom O’ Morn picks up on that mournful note, and, employing a greater depth of instrumental textures, acoustic and electric, guitars and piano, this is a stately and sad-sounding affair. Back to my wiki lifecycle of salmon I go, this is perhaps representing the challenges of smolt seaward migration, which seems ever more hazardous. (But I may be entirely wrong, there being no notes to guide the listener, which, no bad thing, allowing the listener to choose what they will. Or not at all, and just enjoy.)

The Salmon Run shakes off the coat of dread, and is a more majestic sounding piece, with a profound Highland tang about the way it is constructed. Guitar chugs along gracefully as long drawn bowed fiddle notes almost echo bagpipes or whistle, and it feels a hard battle is being well won. A lovely air. Piano notes then hasten in Headwater, a song with which to draw the cycle full circle. As before, the female and male voices, each not without character or substance of their own, just seem better wed in harmony, the three parts greater together. Twin fiddles, violin and viola playing together, pack a rich and warming punch, making for a well-rounded conclusion to this fine record. And, as you tuck in to yer tea, well, if you think a tad more about what you’re eating, so much the better.

Here is the opener, Her Silver Spate:

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