Another of those situations where out of the blue I’m sent an album by artists who’ve been working together for years but whom I’ve never heard before – and then I’m bowled over by the first track and take ages to get to play any more of the album, and then the rest is just as good and I’m wonderin’ how come I missed out all these years! Well, in this case I’ve probably got something approaching an excuse, for it turns out that Mockingbird Soul is Brigitte and Will’s first official duo record – although Will had played on Brigitte’s last two solo records. Will’s name, of course, is likely to be familiar from his role as master guitarist both on tour and collaborating with the likes of Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, so he seems to’ve been a busy chappie from almost year dot. Brigitte’s less well known, though she’s supported some major names over the years. But it’s the pair’s abundant chemistry when playing and singing together that’s the true glory, and they’re at their very best in the stripped-down, intimate setting that Mockingbird Soul gives them. In Will’s own words: “the chemistry’s there, the writing’s there, the harmonies are there, and so is our mutual love of all the music these songs are derived from and inspired by” – the acoustic soul of American roots music in all its guises. The album maintains a great balance between achingly sweet and tender love songs, more seductive and almost teasing numbers, and tougher sassy backporch bluesy swampy grooves; Brigitte proves herself absolutely brilliant in all modes of expression, with Will adapting his harmonies to dovetail perfectly, whereas Will’s own lead vocals (on a small handful of the songs) are pretty damn fine too. The instrumental palette is for the most part just Will’s acoustic (trusty vintage Gibson J-45 “soulmate”) and occasional electric guitar, with a little embellishment from Chris Donohue on upright bass and a cameo from Jano Rix (shuitar and percussion).
The gentle, understated emotional passion of opening song Everything is quite heart-stopping, and the harmonies lovingly caress your ears as well as each other. The album then moves through the moods with the uptempo Broken Fences and Running Round, the gritty vamping of The Juke and Honey Bee and the signature reflective soulful gospel of the title song. Further high points come with the fervent delivery and lithe, well-sprung rhythms of Rainy Day, the delicately beautiful Little Easy, the poignant address I Can Hear Your Voice and the charming uke-backed Until Then. But then we get what might be regarded as the disc’s coup-de-théâtre, which is something of a departure from the roots-Americana groove of the preceding ten tracks: an exceptional cover of Robin Williamson’s iconic October Song that displays a deep understanding of the psyche of the Incredible String Band, the spirit of their music and their sound-world. Brigitte and Will evidently “get” the unfettered, intense literary qualities of the song’s poetic invention and they respond to its nuances and imagery in a way that mirrors the literacy and intelligence of their own writing. Musically, it’s like Will and Brigitte have reimagined the song as it might’ve been performed on an alternate-universe version of the ISB’s second album 5000 Spirits, with florid prelude and interpolated passages of oud-like guitar improv – sheer genius this, and IMHO definitely one of the finest available covers of this song.
Mockingbird Soul is a well-named album, and a special one; Brigitte and Will are a dream team whose symbiotic and utterly together music-making deserves a place on every self-respecting roots music enthusiast’s shelf.
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