A couple of years ago, Katie brought out a tantalising EP Fol-de-Rose, on which she delivered intriguing, experimental treatments of traditional material, and Empty Cup, its full-length followup, tests her personal ingenuity (not to mention her impressive vocal technique and her skill in instrumental arrangement) even more bravely in "blending her lifelong fascination with sacred sound with wayward wanderings along the lanes of traditional songs". Fittingly, since it's released in celebration of World Water Day (21st March), the CD has water seeping through its very pores, providing a both unifying life-force and a recurring element in the tales being told, as well as a kind of literal counterpart for the distinctly liquid qualities of Katie's singing voice. Although Katie's inventive approach to the interpretation and setting of traditional song is highly individual, there are at times post-echoes of singers as disparate as Sheila Chandra, Lisa Knapp and Kate Bush, the latter especially on tracks like Willow (a lyrical setting of Desdemona's song from Othello) with its swooping, soaring vocal lines. But stunning vocal aerobatics could not in isolation be considered so crucial an element in the success of any contemporary album of reworked traditional song, and Katie's gorgeously urbanised take on tradition relies equally as much - if not more - on keenly imaginative musical arrangement for its impact.
The album's highlights begin at the outset, where the sampled sound of fading gunshots makes for an arresting opening, ushering in a bleak programmed beat over which enters Katie's voice - resigned, desolate and almost matter-of-fact, at first solo and then in harmony - for an urban retelling of the ballad of Molly Bawn; supporting organ chords are then added, and the texture builds then dies, leaving only the lone minimalist heartbeat. Other notable moments include Requiem, introduced by crashing waves and eternal tambura-drone, which creatively utilises Fauré's soprano aria Pie Jesu (from his own Requiem) as a frame for a 19th century whaling ballad (sounds unlikely but it really works); Robert Burns' Red Red Rose, which is given a coquettishly caressing wee-small-hours lounge-jazz setting; Quiet Silent, which employs a gutsy shanty-styled rhythm as a counterpoint to a winsome rendition of All Things Are Quite Silent; Streets, which relocates its ballad from Derry to South London to a bleak backdrop of bare block-chording; a compellingly edgy and clear-sighted take on Maid On The Shore; and the title song, which turns out to be a mesmerising melange of a Sanskrit mantra, a verse of Ben Jonson's Song To Celia (aka Drink To Me Only) and a poem by 13th century mystic Jallaludin Rumi.
Given the overall theme of the disc, its centrepiece could be considered to be Oshun (which by the way comes eighth in the running-order, not ninth as listed on the package); this song is named after the West African goddess associated with moisture, water, attraction, harmony, ecstasy, fertility, sensuality and beauty, and mirrors those very qualities in its gently pulsing invocation and soothing, rather new-age vibe.
The disc's attractive organic-DIY ambience is accentuated by Katie's accomplished musicianship; she plays all instruments herself - piano, keyboards and sundry percussive exotica - and all the voices you hear are her own, multitracked where necessary. The exception is Brigg Fair, an affectionate rustic idyll on which the vocal part is taken by Katie's father John Burden, who had introduced Katie to the music of Vaughan Williams and Britten (and presumably therefore also Delius?) at an early age. However, the flowery, cultured nature of his delivery (tho' appealing enough on its own terms) and the self-consciously mellow keyboard washes of the backing are features that seem rather at odds with the more natural expressive tonalities Katie tends to favour elsewhere on the disc. And even then, perhaps not all of the selections quite suit Katie's self-styled "folk-mantra" treatment. Water Is Wide's lapping, splashing rhythms and jazz-improv feel don't really convey the essence of the lyric, while Katie's adoption of a girlish warble as primary timbre on some songs isn't always entirely believable, and the closing Epilogue (which pleasingly reprises or develops bare fragments from some of the preceding tracks) might be considered a touch redundant (tho' I find it strangely compelling).
But any largely experimental outing is bound to involve a small measure of curate's egg, and Katie is to be applauded for her initiative nonetheless. Her abundant artistic creativity extends to the CD package, which sports a complex origami design. Since this gambit allows no room for lyrics or song notes, these are available as a pdf easily downloadable from the Shop page of Katie's website.
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