It's been two years since the debut album from Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage caused ripples within the folk, roots and acoustic world. Before The Sun brought many plaudits and marked the pair out as a duo to be reckoned with. The forthcoming release of their second studio album, Awake, is therefore eagerly awaited, and I would suggest that listeners will not be disappointed.
Whilst Ben grew up in the Cambridgeshire fens within a folk music environment, his father being a skilled concertina player and folk singer, his own route into playing was somewhat circuitous, mainly through gigging during his teenage years with rock bands, before an encounter with Bert Jansch's Rosemary Lane proved to be somewhat of an epiphany. It was not long before he formed The Willows.
Hannah also grew up surrounded by music, primarily through her folk family travels across Europe as The Dunns. Following PhD studies and a sojourn in New England, teaching and publishing, she returned to her native East Anglia and a chance meeting with Ben resulted not only in his producing her debut solo album, Charms Against The Sorrow, but also the beginning of something special in terms of their musical journey as a duo.
As with the debut release, the signature sound of Ben's dobro combined with Hannah's crystal clear voice and dulcimer, together with heavenly harmonies, provide the bedrock of Awake. The decision was also made to return to Toronto to record the album, again employing the talents of award-winning Canadian producer David Travers-Smith.
Guest musicians from both sides of the Atlantic add to the magic. Canadians Chris Coole, banjo, producer David Travers-Smith also contributing horns and organ, Burke Carroll, pedal steel and vocals and Suzanne Ungerleider, (credited here as Oh Susannah) vocals, are joined by Jon Thorne, double bass, Evan Carson, percussion, and Katriona Gilmore, Jamie Roberts and Jess Morgan, additional vocals, from the UK.
The most significant difference between the two releases, however, is found in the fact that the duo's songwriting skills are much more to the fore on the latest release. Whereas the debut contained only two self-penned songs, Awake features no less than six original compositions, alongside two covers and three arrangements of traditional songs/tunes.
The two covers, Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, (Guthrie/Bragg), and One Grain Of Sand, (Seeger), are both delivered with conviction, whilst the three Trad. Arr. interpretations, in particular their version of Reynardine, again showcase their undoubted ability to innovate whilst remaining true to the folk tradition.
It is, however, the original material that provides the stand-out moments for this reviewer.
The opening track, Selkie Song, is a banjo-laced therianthropic tale of the mythical sea woman and her yearning to return to her spititual sea home, and beautifully delivered it is too. As is the following song, Met A Man, in which Hannah's vocals shine over haunting instrumentation, including subtle pedal steel.
With A Thousand New Moons, it is Ben's turn to take lead vocals on a beguiling song reflecting on endings and beginnings. 7 sees more pedal steel and horns accompanying Hannah and Ben's guitar duet, with the enchanting magpie nursey rhyme One For Sorrow providing the chorus, and is a thing of delight.
The atmospheric title track, Awake, builds to a rich, vocal crescendo and is two and a half minutes of delightful elegance, as is album closer, Reaching, a delicate love song in which Hannah's vocals once more soar and weave over sensitive instrumentation.
Awake is an album to be savoured, and gives further credence to the fact that Sanders & Savage are leaving an indelible, welcome mark on the musical world.
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