O’Hooley & Tidow – Cloudheads: Album Review

O’Hooley & Tidow make up for lost time with a marvellous return.

Release Date: 21st April 2023

Label: No Masters

Format: CD / digital

It’s been a while since O’Hooley & Tidow appeared on our pages. It’s getting on for three years since their live album while just over a year ago Belinda O’Hooley was off on a solo tour. The latter, albeit a delightful departure, seemed at odds with a duo who are invariably side by side. The importance and value of family time is also a factor that we should acknowledge; on the odd time we get to look at the bigger picture, there are actually some things more important than music and bringing the balance back with family life has become a significant player

Of late, they’ve been dabbling with what might on the surface be seen as drinking and Christmas songs (although scratching the surface reveals inner depths), such that it feels like an age since Shadows. Their Gentleman Jack might have nudged them into hobnobbing with the mainstream entertainment elite – and did anyone else spot Belinda briefly in season three of Happy Valley – of course you did! But – it’s grand to have them doing the thing for which we know them best.

Aided and abetted by a clutch of cameos from friends and musicians who more often than not “came and spent a day with us.” From the strong presence of strings of Anna Esslemont to Chumbawumba’s Jude Abbott on flugelhorn; Jack MacNeill’s clarinet, The Magic Numbers’ Michele Stodart, Coven buddy Hannah James multitasking on accordion and foot percussion and guitarist/singer Katie Spencer bring a varied and rich musical palette to Cloudheads. All contribute their own spoonful of richness and a newly defined (and refined) quality to these songs.

Add their own experiences from being parents for the first time and strong women from history (naturally) to embracing what for many years they thought were their own shortcomings only to learn to understand and appreciate how those struggles have become strengths and are celebrated on Cloudheads. Inspirations from unusual places and unlikely sources such as Annie Lennox’s piano that’s described as “completely unique with an amazing sound that we love,” in Peel House, Halifax, push Heidi and Belinda into exquisite performances found on songs like The Song Thrush that sit with classics from the archive such as The Last Polar Bear and Shelter Me.

And they’re back before a note is played. With an opening track titled Worn Out And Full Of Wonder (yes, we’ve been there), we’re already part of their wonderful world. Within a few seconds of the digital scanner getting to grips with the musical code, the OH&T warmth is oozing led by Belinda’s observations and lyric that Guy Garvey would be proud of.

The title track is driven by an urgent rush of strings while Matthew & Ted sound like a pair who’ve been on the same charabanc day trip as Vera and Albert, yet it’s far from that. A musical tribute to “the most tender moment we had ever witnessed,” (which is saying something) anyone who’s lived with a pet will find it hard to hold on to their emotions. Pets, landscapes and mournful brass are all part of creating evocative scenes – many locales provide the landmarks for Chimneys, Moors And Me in much the same way as The Hum. My, how these two can target the parts of the brain that channel and stir the emotions. You can understand how Woman In Space would fit the Coven profile with the added delicacy of Hannah James’ contribution and like Polly, strong women singing about strong women.

The unexpected but welcome vignettes Peel House and The Road To Monalea find Belinda back on ground last trodden in her solo work on Inversions. Lovely, peaceful moments that offer an air of reflection, particularly the light wind accompaniment that floats through the latter. The album too, closes with one such piece, as Fiacre Ryan draws the curtain with a gentle touch.

However, there’s one final flourish as old mate Suranne Jones is back, returning the favour and guesting on The Ballad Of Anne And Ann. Saved for the finale (almost…), thoughts of madness and courage and the evocative flugelhorn all gel to create a meisterwork. The jugular has been breached and we’re wrecked. A shining highlight amongst an album of gems, the return of OH&T on Cloudheads is a marvellous occasion and cause for celebration.

O’Hooley & Tidow online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / InstagramBandcamp

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