Whitsun Roundup: Mike Tod, Sansome/Quinn, Fiona Rutherford

Another bank holiday, another backlog…. Here’s another trio that missed the deadline but aren’t worth losing altogether.

Mike Tod: LP

To be fair, given his debut release was the extended play EP, this, his first full-length offering, could only really have ever been called this. (I didn’t catch the name of his first single, wondering whether that was called, well, you catch my drift.) Enough preamble, this is new work from a new artist, new only in that these often well-travelled songs are new to him and his world weary voice. As a Canadian, he may well be world famous in Calgary, but it’s a pleasure to catch his aquaintance this side of the pond.

Canadians seem generally to have a better grasp around country and bluegrass than do their southern brothers, which, if not a fact, seems certainly a valid observation. The list of the great and good providing the proof of that pudding is long and illustrious, from Cowboy Junkies to k.d. lang, let alone the ease with which more broadly based singer-songwriters can dip so also easily into that trough, thinking Neil Young and the recently departed Gordon Lightfoot. Uncertain if this dude will enter those ranks, but it is a promising start, his niche being an old timey take on some dusty old trad arrs, amongst others. Such is the quality of the instrumental play that the dust is brushed off, with most of it settling, appealingly, in his dry-mouthed croak.

Do we need another version of The Coo Coo (bird)? Tod believes so, and I second his opinion, the old chestnut spun with an eccentric fiddle drone start, over clawhammer banjo and what sounds like a saw. The tune so well known , it is more appetiser than a full first course, but the bvs are, too, equivalently off kilter enough as to stand out from the flock. The Blackest Crow then hits your whetted palate just right, finger picked guitar and lap steel now the accompaniment around his cracked tones. A broadsheet ballad, sometimes played as a waltz, this simpler rendition is splendid. Wayne Garrett provides the steel guitar. Flowers Of Edinburgh is then a delightfully scratchy twin fiddle instrumental, very much in the Quebecois style, with bowed bass adding to the ambience. The fiddlers are Jeremy Gignoux and Laura Reid, and the bass player Keith Rodger. Three tracks in and the grasp of styles is already gloriously eclectic.

Most will know Cigarettes And Whisky from one or other version; this is full on old-timey in a ballroom of despair type arrangement. “Picture a dusty old-time saloon where a group of half-cut patrons kick up their boots, lope, and sing in drunken reverie” guides the sleevenotes, both helpfully and believably. Tapping further into a maudlin mood, Undone In Misery is perfect to follow. Starting with just guitar and that cracked vessel of a voice, fiddle, mandolin and some simple thumps of percussion then enlist, and the whole could be lifted from a lithograph of the old west. The trilling mandolin comes from Nathan Godfey, whose banjo opens Back To My Home. A bluesy and repetitive mantra, moaned rather than sung, it is the only Tod-written song here. Female backing vocals from Melodie Ayoungman add to the wailing chorus. A mood of restlessness inhabits both this song and the next, Buffy Ste. Marie’s Little Wheel Spin And Spin. Godfrey has switched now to resonator alongside Tods picked guitar. A hushed vocal chants the lyric, with eerie fiddle sounds creating a backdrop of malevolence to the raga-like drone. You might need a pause for reflection after this, some reassurance that all is well with your world. Hopefully.

Cold Frosty Morning comes possibly via Rabbie Burns and Doc Watson, if separately, otherwise an endearing image, a rhythmic pulse of banjo leading into some flat picking that wouldn’t embarrass the good Doc. The build is incessant, as the extra instruments slot in, before this second instrumental is over, as quick as it began. Opal Retzer is Tod’s wife, she then providing duet vocals for a quaintly moving ballad, Wait For Me, their voices sand and honey, yet pairing precisely for some harmonies that include the gentlest yodelling you’ll hear this year. It is rather lovely, as is My Alberta Rose, another gentle sway of a tune, with choral choruses, together with the whole instrumental ensemble, steel, fiddles and all. All as far from modern Nashville as you could ever be, it is all gloriously retro, and underlines just how well Tod has put together this lovely record.

Here’s The Blackest Crow:

Mike Tod online: website / Facebook / instagram

George Sansome & Matt Quinn – Sheffield Park (Grimdon Records)

The first thing you hear here is the primal onslaught of two voices, each booming out at full pelt, weaving and wending around each other, in an interchange of descants and harmony, each sure of the other as they dip and dive. Nothing else. No instrumentation, traditional English folk music, doing what it does best. Sansome and Quinn are each already celebrated singers and musicians, Sansome, predominantly, in Granny’s Attic and Quinn in Dovetail Trio. But, learning how well their voices gelled, had to find a way to share that, picking on producer, Tom Wright, of The Magpie Arc and Melrose Quartet, to pull it all together into shape, with a gloss and sheen seldom seen since the glory days of English choral folk singing, early Steeleye, Swan Arcade and, clearly, the Watersons. Are these two guys up to this? Let’s see.

Tyne of Harrow starts out insistently, Quinn solo for the first verse, ahead the higher-pitched harmony of Sansome slotting in seamlessly. To quote Chumbawamba, it’s “voices that’s all”, and it isn’t heard something we hear enough of these days. This, and nearly all the songs, are traditional, each with their Roud number and a brief note as to why it were chosen or heard first. Also a clue as to which of the pair took prime responsibility for the arrangement. Tailor In The Tea Chest follows, introducing accompaniment, Sansome’s guitar and Quinn’s mandolin. The instruments are neither flashy nor rudimentary, occupying a middle ground so as to not take attention away from the singing. Title track, Sheffield Park, is a drop down gorgeous take, sung by Quinn, his voice a yearning entreaty over Sansome’s guitar picking.

Those who know Sansome’s background and involvement in the Queer Folk project, may wryly smile at his I Once Loved A Boy, but gender specifics have seldom ever concerned the delivery of so many songs of the folk canon, so why should it here? A sweet and sensitive delivery, the arrangement, lifted from The Grey Hawk, is pleasantly medieval in style, the expectation of crumhorns never far away. The Fox And Grey Goose is simpler fare, almost nursery rhyme in format, down, of course, to the grisly fate of, spoiler alert, the fox. More gravitas comes with Night Visiting Song, the mournful nature thereof again perfect for Quinn’s fragile tenor, the realisation sinking in that each of these last four songs have been solo vocal spots. The mandolin and guitar dance particularly well together, on this one, however, to show both are still present.

I Live Not Where I Love swiftly redresses that balance. Maybe the most well-known song here, my comparator would always be the Linda Thompson version on Simon Nicol’s first solo album. Well, tune apart, this nothing like that, the unaccompanied duet here near hymnal. Bleaker, without instrumentation, this allows the words to sink in all the deeper. My Son In Amerikay is the only non purely trad selection, if indubitably in the style. The lyrics come from an Ali McLaughlin, it has a distinct Irish feel, hardly surprisingly, given the lineage; who remembers Patrick Street and Andy Irvine’s delivery? In truth, it stands out a bit like a sore thumb against the rest of the material, but I guess some light relief was maybe thought necessary.

Thornaby Woods manages to restore the mood, despite having a similar rollicking roll to it, a classic tale of a night out a’poaching. And if that falls into the jolly frolics school of folk, be sure that such upbeat lightweight topics are now banished, the record closing with two examples of the indubitably more pleasurable canon of darkness and dirge. First up is Shirley Collins gloriously gloomy rewrite of Babes In The Wood, Lost In A Wood. Their voices are slightly wracked and ragged for this, over a chimingly funereal backing. Another pin drop of a track, it is tremendous. The Death Of Andrew then manages to make that earlier tale of dead infants seem positively cheery. As Quinn says in the liner notes: “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” Quinn again takes the lead, to Sansome’s sombre guitar, tinkles of mandolin emerging toward the end. It’s a long and depressing tale, and is there anything better to warm the heart of an old folkie?

Try I Live Not Where I Love:

Sansome/Quinn online: website : Sansome / facebook / twitter: Sansome, Quinn / Instagram

Fiona Rutherford : Seed (self-released – Bandcamp)

The chances are that the name is unfamiliar, but don’t let that put you off. Likewise the difficulty in being able instantly to apply any one simple descriptive genre. If I make a stab at chamber folk, you would be right in sussing out that the mood is that possibly crossover territory, often beloved for film and the theatre. And rightfully so, the nub being that this is mood music, with the capability of catching and emotion and running, wordlessly, with it. Her chosen instrument is the Scottish harp, or clarsach, although that is far from the only sound you will hear here. She has surrounded herself with likeminded souls, playing a variety of instruments: violins, cello, some woodwind and piano. Plus, for some of the pieces, vocals, these coming from Amy Duncan, whose own album, Cocoon we liked here.

Rutherford has a track record, with four albums behind her, one in conjunction, again, with Duncan. This has had a slightly different gestation, mind, almost creeping out, having been put together, piecemeal, between the challenges of these past few years, for her compounded and complicated by becoming a parent. Not that you’d guess, it all hanging well together as a defined set-piece.

The opener, Orbit Audio, for all that, is solo harp, and is a delicate ethereal tissue of sounds, clinking and chiming. Evocative of a frozen cobweb on an icy January morning, slowly it limbers up into life, some structure appearing out the soundscape. In turns, beguiling and bewitching. The Buzz then starts with some further spiky harp, before some flute, Sarah Hayes, and clarinet, Kevin Brolly, pump in, the different textures weaving around each other, the spirit very much of dawn or twilight, deeper timbres of cello entering to saw in a lower pathway, double bass taking it down further. It makes for an inviting and attractive piece of music. That orchestral feel perpetuates into Sunflower, with a string quartet, abetted by double bass, add some silky lushness to, in another iteration, could be a folk blues. That may seem hard to imagine, but strip away the backing and imagine the harp a picked guitar, and this could so easily become that. Not that one should wish away the densely satisfying additional arrangement.

As is the way with clarsach, it can have a very keyboardy tone, so when track four, Fragile Transformations, starts, it takes a moment to realise this time it is purely piano, this provided by Jenny Rutherford, her sister, an acclaimed performer in her own right. A geometric construction, it isn’t a million miles from some of the work of Olafur Arnalds, an influence Rutherford acknowledges. Wired, too, is for solo piano, a frantic ticking tock of urgency, suggesting just that over-caffeinated state, yet when it leads to a rigid control rather than disordered chaos. One cup more than you meant, a cup shy of disaster. So when Still Joy kicks in, with harp once more in control, coddled by that same earlier string section, it comes as somewhere between both jolt and relief. With a gracefully loping sway to the melody, Duncan then adds her wisp of a voice, becoming a dreamy sonic cloud that floats around the players. A second vocal track, This One Night, reprises the same line-up, but has a more pronounced structure and occupies a hinterland between Enya and Juliana Barwick. I can well see how this could burrow deep into your ear. The string section comprises Kate Miguda and Liam Lynch on violins, Yvette Rosie on viola, Pete Harvey on cello and Martha Bean on the double bass.

The title track is back to solo harp, sounding for all the world like a splashing waterfall, into which a dip is demanded. After the mellowness of the two tracks preceding, it is an invigorating sparkle. The closer, Jagged, is just that, another change of direction. Think of that same waterfall, this time with something unexpected below the surface, the uncertainty, and possible dread, provided by a bowed electric bass guitar. It is Duncan again, playing the bass, and, if this track is a pointer for future directions, please bring it on. All too short, it opens up further vistas that this already widescreen recording artist could go in future.

Here is that closing track, Jagged:

Fiona Rutherford online: website / Twitter

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