Maybe once or twice a year a peach of an album leaps out of the review pile, grabs you by the throat and assaults your ears with wave after wave of originality and musical perfection. Poor Strange Girl is just one of those albums.
Alice Jones is a proud Yorkshire-woman who has grown up with folk music in her blood, resulting in a keen interest in the genre both musically and academically, and a consequent encyclopaedia of material on which to draw. A multi-instrumentalist blessed with a voice of liquid clarity, tinted with a lovely warm Yorkshire twang, Alice has paid her dues as a pianist, session musician and collaborator across God's own county for several years.
Alice has also spent time working with Pete Coe, studying and researching the works of Victorian folk song collector Frank Kidson. Their show 'The Search for Five Finger Frank' and 2014 album of the same name are both well worth seeking out.
Her debut solo album is therefore well overdue, and is clearly a labour of love. Joined only by acclaimed fiddler Tom Kitching (Pilgrims' Way) and Hugh Bradley (Whiskey Priests) on double bass, Alice provides all vocals, piano, harmonium, whistle and tenor guitar contributions herself, to superb effect. Of the twelve tracks, most are carefully chosen trad/arrs, punctuated by a handful of original tunes which stand up well alongside the traditional material.
Alice's multi-instrumental talents are showcased neatly on the first three tracks of the album. The title track opens the album, a dark tale of misfortune based on a song collected by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky in 1917. Alice says in the sleeve notes that while singing this song she enjoys being able "to repeatedly declare that 'I am a pure strange girl' which is, of course, true." Alice's rhythmic guitar and Kitching's lively fiddle drive the song along at a foot-tapping pace.
The highlight of the album, among strong competition, is Woody Knows Nothing. Sourced from an Erik Darling record called 'True Religion', and accompanying herself expressively on piano, it is a simple yet inspiring composition based on the fragility of love, sung tenderly here with lucidity and precision, degrees of emotion injected in all the right places. Beautiful.
Next come a set of original tunes The Larkman/The Herron Tree, showcasing Alice's elegant whistle playing and indeed composing skills. These attributes are also presented in two lively mazurkas, written as wedding presents for friends, and in Digerpolskan, a Swedish polska written by Göran Fredrikson, and the upbeat original Duhk Strut Reel, written for her friend Leonard Podolak (of Canadian folk fusion band The Duhks).
Alice's haunting harmonium and Kitching's atmospheric fiddle most effectively accompany a version of the traditional murder ballad The Cruel Mother. Two songs from the Frank Kidson collection are also present, Green Bushes being unusual in the folk canon in which a woman gets to be the philanderer, another delightful vocal performance accompanied by restrained piano and fiddle. When I Am Far Away meanwhile is a lively broadside with nicely layered harmony vocals and harmonium backing.
Another album highlight is Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still, a moving song of loss and remembrance from the collection of Frank and Anne Warner sourced from the Appalachian Mountains. Beautifully sung here with poignant piano accompaniment.
Another song from the Warner collection, The Castle By The Sea, sourced in 1940, sees a 'false young man' drowned in the sea by a woman exacting revenge on behalf of the sisterhood, which might explain why Alice appears to be enjoying relaying the story so much. Kitching's controlled fiddle accompaniment draws the listener in to the tale.
Adieu To Old England is a 'riches to rags' tale of recession-induced misery which rings as true today as ever, and is delightfully performed here with expressive vocal and complementary piano accompaniment.
Long, Long Trail A-Winding closes the album, a popular WW1 song dedicated here to the memory of Alice's 'Terrace Gran', neighbour Kath Richards, another song of loss or longing, simply performed here with atmospheric harmonium backing.
Overall, Alice Jones's multi-instrumental skills, enchanting vocal talent and inspired choice of material all add up to a mightily impressive and mature debut.
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