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Lisa Knapp Lisa Knapp
Album: Till April Is Dead - A Garland Of May
Label: Ear To The Ground
Tracks: 12

Thus far, Lisa's recorded output may have appeared a somewhat thorny proposition, singularly difficult to assess, largely due to its adventurous and highly creative use of modern technology which for some listeners has occasionally got in the way of her charming and quirky personal expositions of traditional folksong. As on her previous albums Wild And Undaunted and Hidden Seam, Lisa is practically aided by her collaborator and partner Gerry Diver, who works his extraordinary musical and production magic to realise her brave and uncompromising vision. This latest record, as its title betokens, is a kind of concept album-project taking the form of a celebration, an aural presentation, of the month of May, a very special time of year. It's ostensibly a collection of May songs, some attached to specific rituals performed in Britain every May and others narrating love and loss set in that month. Yet it seems much less a succession of songs than a linked audio tapestry, an ambitious collage of voice, acoustic and mechanical instrumental textures and found sounds all inventively programmed together in a hazy yet needle-sharp stream-of-consciousness that's STRANGE and yet weirdly familiar, all as viewed through the refracted lens of a child's eye perhaps. As with all sensory experiences from childhood, we naturally struggle at times to make sense of it, either from an intellectual or cultural standpoint, let alone a purely musical one. Lisa's intensely personal reinterpretation of tradition - whether song or folklore - is both dramatic and sanguine, adult in its artistic sophistication yet truly childlike in its playfulness. Knowing and comforting, and yet also often intensely disturbing in its acute awareness of the darkness barely concealed within the season's beauty.

Over the course of the disc's twelve tracks, Lisa adopts a variety of techniques to realise in sound what I can only describe as the true atmosphere of the season. Some tracks are almost hallucinatory in their depiction of this ambience, where the magic-filled month of May in all its folk-symbolic glory is conveyed either through heady experimental soundscapes incorporating snatches of traditional song that vanish almost as soon as they're recalled or else through ambient and innovative treatments of recognisable specific traditional songs. Lisa's own light-as-a-bell singing voice is at the centre of each piece; its air of curiously knowing innocence can be quite chilling, especially when she employs a defiant quavering vibrato (as on her reimagining of the Copper Family standard Pleasant Month Of May, which is done to an insistent thudding ostinato heartbeat that bursts out into the bright sunlight in celebration of life itself). Some tracks include the sounds of mechanisms (chiming clocks etc.) or buzzing beez; others are permeated by an abundance of cuckoos, whether natural ones or the cuckoo clock/mechanical variety; others feature real birdsong too, and perhaps at times this practice can feel cheekily distracting, almost a gimmick, as on the positively nightmarish, eerily owl-hoot-punctuated opening sequence The Night Before May Day (which incorporates a transposition of part of the Padstow May Song and samples of Steve Roud) and suitably boisterous ritualistic finale Padstow Obby Oss May Song. The title track sets a recitation of folklore superstitions and incantation of playground rhymes against a ticking clock, onto which is ingeniously overlaid the beating tattoo of Hal-an-Tow.

One of the disc's most successful reimaginings, Staines Morris, is nothing less than an audacious calling-on song for nature's spirits, who arise with pounding, galloping Joe Meek hoofbeats to perform their elemental courtly dance, with interjections from David Tibet of Current 93. On the wonderfully melancholy Searching For Lambs, Lisa pays homage to her original source for the song, Shirley Collins, by inviting Shirley's own latter-day collaborator Graham Coxon to join her on vocal and guitar. On Lisa's magical, intimate and gorgeously spare version of the Bedfordshire May Day Carol she sings with Mary Hampton and is accompanied by Dave East on concertina and Gerry Diver sensitively touching the banjo strings. Lisa gives the simple Romany ballad of Lily White Hand (which she learnt from a recording of the Brazil family) a delicate - if again quite chilling - reading, accompanied only by plucked fiddle and hammered dulcimer. The less well-known ballad variant Don't You Go A Rushing Maids In May receives an even more austere pizzicato backdrop - delightful perfection! Lisa's spellbinding, jewel-like rendition of Lark In The Morning embodies all the stillness and restless skittering promise of the early morning, early summer experience (with all its half-heard little noises) before yielding to a brooding percussive momentum instigated by street cries and the shriek of a disturbed female tawny owl. The pithy little Hardy-esque epigram Where's Troy? moves from a cacophony of chiming clocks to a carnival barrel-organ waltz. Two of the disc's selections - the jittery, jaunty "cuckoolding", music-box-bedecked collage of May Garland and the aforementioned Pleasant Month Of May - are reprised from Lisa's 2012 EP Hunt The Hare (on which the May celebration concept first took hold of Lisa's imagination), and as far as I can tell they're the same recordings; but no matter when they fit so well into the scheme of things here.

Till April Is Dead is a fascinating and yes, supremely rewarding experience, worth much repeated exposure (even if at times some listeners are likely to find its well-intentioned experimentalism a touch wilful). Lisa's still one of the most individual of today's exponents of what used to be termed nu-folk, and I can't resist her bewitchingly charming - if, as I already hinted, also somewhat disturbing - welcome to the merry month in all its ambiguous and duplicitous guises, wearing a firmly contemporary cloak of rustic antiquity.

David Kidman