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Cath & Phil Tyler Cath & Phil Tyler
Album: The Ox And The Ax
Label: Ferric Mordant
Tracks: 9

Cath and Phil have a solid grounding in, and a strong shared love of, traditional narrative song (and Sacred Harp). Over a decade ago, following her stint with legendary folk-punk-indie band Cordelia’s Dad, Cath (née Oss) relocated to the UK and married Newcastle-based Phil, since which time they’ve stayed true to their shared heritage by producing a series of magnificently unpretentious releases (three LPs and an EP) displaying both their intense and intuitive interpersonal and cultural empathy and their deep respect for, and understanding of, tradition – all of which aspects are conveyed entirely naturally and unassumingly, with minimal accompaniment and having no truck with studio treatments or enhancement or attention-grabbing gimmickry.

The absolute, unadorned honesty of their singing, both individually and sounding together, makes for a totally real, as-is experience that’s just as it should be – stark, sure, but also seriously immediate and spine-tingling. Never mind the technique, just feel the frisson of true understanding. For evidence, just go sample any track on The Ox And The Ax (Cath and Phil’s third full-length album, eight whole years on from well-received EP The Hind Wheels Of Bad Luck) – but especially its most primal example, the album’s lone a cappella item, Rainbow – and you’ll get this straightaway. Also, their harmonies on other songs – eg Finest Flower (a version of The Unquiet Grave) and Talk About Suffering – are to die for too. Even so, there’s no lessening of impact when Cath sings solo, here accompanied usually by just one instrument, on this CD for the most part Phil’s imaginatively understated and brilliantly dextrous guitar, or (on Lady Dysie and Talk About Suffering) his gloriously raw-edged mountain-style banjo.

It’s good also to hear Phil taking a solo lead vocal for once, here on Ernest Jones’ Song Of The Lower Classes – whose sparkling new tune is by Phil too. On which point, another count on which this superb collection of traditional songs scores particularly is the fact that almost all of the tunes we hear (to which the ballads are sung) have been written by Phil himself – these are archetypally twisty, turny melodies with all the feel of down-home authenticity, sounding like they might’ve been unearthed somewhere deep in the backwoods or mountains or else sourced from lost recordings of obscure source singers. This quality provides a uniquely effective foil for Cath’s singing, where the authoritative edginess of her delivery is balanced by an easy lightness of execution that’s comfortable (in the sense of “right”) but never complacent. Some achievement…

There’s also some delightfully quirky and appropriate musical embellishment on selected occasions, including Glenn Bruinewoud’s sensitively restrained trumpet work (on Song Of The Lower Classes and King Henry, the latter also deploying a smidgen of primitive percussion), and a glorious moment following the conclusion of The Two Sisters ballad where jew’s harp and fiddle almost casually enter the fray, join in, to the tune of a rather jolly jig that’s listed here as A Fisherman’s Song for Attracting Seals, and then dance away into the distance.

Although the presentation is minimal, with hand-crafted artwork and sepia photo adorning a card digipack case, song sources are nevertheless meticulously yet succinctly acknowledged – the one tantalising exception being Lady Dysie, which is credited as having words taken “from one of Martin Carthy’s John Peel radio sessions”; I feel sure that with just a little research Phil and Cath might have been able to expand on this detail (for the record, Ken Garner’s mighty Peel sessionography lists it as 25th April 1983), although to be fair it also begs the question of how come Mr. Carthy has never made a commercial recording of this rarely-heard ballad…)

In summary, then, The Ox And The Ax is an outstanding example of how to get it right – it’s a truly rewarding collection of caring, totally committed performances of traditional song. You definitely need to hear it.

David Kidman