In the 2½ years since her highly acclaimed album With The Dawn, Bella’s travelled right across the globe: firstly to Nashville, where she immersed herself in the city’s songwriting culture, and secondly on music-finding trips to Yunnan Province in south-west China (the latter resulting in last summer’s album Eternal Spring, a collaboration with Chinese musicians). These radical changes of lifestyle and perspective have proved key experiences in shaping the startling artistic maturity that informs Bella’s latest offering.
Hey Sammy is a collection of eleven new self-penned songs that on first acquaintance seem worlds away from the at first heavily tradition-based fiddle-singer who reached a career milestone when she won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer Of The Year Award in 2014. Over the years, though, Bella’s own songwriting has developed apace, with an early specialisation in traditional storytelling (notably concerning the legends and folklore of her native Edale) now being subsumed by a fearless new freedom of expression clearly inspired by her recent travels, and a brave expansion of her musical palette under the influence of producer Paul Savage to encompass fuller, genuinely innovative and close-knit band arrangements involving electric guitar (Iain Thomson), keyboards and clarinet (Scottish jazz pianist Tom Gibbs), bass (James Lindsay) and drums (John Blease), while Bella still finds room for some trademark fiery fiddle as well as playing harmonium and xylophone, and her peerless soaring vocals remain a key sonic signature in the sound of the new album, for all that it sounds distinctly like a classy contemporary pop record and less like a folk album.
The songs on Hey Sammy take on an altogether more worldly consciousness than hitherto – for example, the title song is a deceptively singsong commentary on social injustice and received racist attitudes. The album’s catchiest track, You Don’t Owe The World Pretty, couched in Pretenders-style pop-jangle, finds Bella in Kirsty MacColl territory advocating individuality and empowerment. Almost as catchy is the chorus of Learning To Let Go with its air-punching California refrain. Romance is examined on the swooning In My Dreams, and Driving Through Harmony (a co-write with Iain) with its wiry new-wave guitar and skittering, jumpy percussion, while Queen Of Carter’s Bar is the closest the album gets to a folk-rock ballad, slightly obscurely yet eloquently reshaping Tam Lin as a rueful reflection on a failed love. The final pair of tracks is most clearly inspired by Bella’s experiences in China; South Lake is a kind of humanist hymn of considerable lyrical beauty, while Stars expresses Bella’s awe-struck observation of the heavens, building from a delicately chiming oriental tintinnabulation to a glistening, twinkling paean.
All told, Hey Sammy is a cathartic expression of Bella’s latest outburst of creativity that, while probably not what her folkier fans might expect musically, should be taken on its own terms as a stimulating example of a contemporary singer-songwriter album.
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