Martha certainly has music in her blood. Her earliest memory is that of sitting on her mothers lap singing harmony in the hills of Appalachia and, as her website tells us, she was 'Born with folk and country music in her blood, she comes from a long line of singers, musicians and luthiers from the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia'.
Fast forward a few years and after a very successful release with 2016's 'Southern White Lies', a packed touring schedule ranging over the USA and Europe, it's time for her next album, 'Dancing Shadows'.
Martha wrote, recorded and produced the 14 songs on offer here whilst on 'self exile' in the south west of France and along with her touring band and other musicians in the studio, unfortunately far too numerous to mention individually, presents a sound that ranges across folk, blues, country, rock and bluegrass.
A smouldering electric guitar riff and drums bring on opening track 'Sukey' before dropping down to let in a muted acoustic part and Martha's vocal, with lyrics full of archetypal imagery "Wolf knocking at my door, hounds howling at the moon". Martha's voice is bang on top of the mix and she has the tone to carry these kind of lyrics, say somewhere between a less strident Patti Smith and the sweeter measures of Joan Osborne. The song doesn't let up throughout, full of great playing, guitars trading licks and it all adds up to a fine scene setter indeed.
'Paris To Austin' immediately slows the pace down, gentle acoustic picking, shimmering slide, fiddle and yearning vocal, which confirms Martha has a way with a scene setting opening couplet "Well it's a long road from Paris to Austin and I've been down before". The song is beautifully dressed with its subtle instrumentation, and another thing I like is the use of proper drums on a slower track like this. So often in acoustic/ roots music a slower song seems to mean the use of a shaker and bass only as the rhythmic heartbeat, and nothing wrong with that of course, but please never instead of a drum kit!
'Exile' is more of a mid tempo number but with another strong, propulsive drive, lovely little riff, electric slide and drums whereas 'Demona' starts completely acapella before slipping into an almost bluegrass banjo, slide, fiddle and drum track that sounds as though it could have been lifted from the score of 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou'.
'Oklahoma On My Mind' is back to more straight forward country ballad territory with another of those cinematic opening couplets "Dreamt of riding horses, free as the wind we were", 'Forbidden Fruit' is all killer riffs and bar room country rock and after a deceptively wistful intro, 'Last Train To Sanesville' is more of the same but with some glorious fiddle and testifying backing vocals to the fore, then, after another deceptively spacious intro, the banjo driven 'West Virginia In My Bones' completes this breathless trio of songs.
'Desert Flower' definitely slows things down without losing any punch with its muted guitar part and strong vocal, 'Maxine' is more acoustic based country rock boasting a particularly fine drum part and 'Fare Thee Well Blues' is timeless country blues that rattles through on another outstanding rhythm track.
On to track twelve now and it might be understandable if things started mellowing out a bit as the album draws to a close, but with a song called 'Hillbilly Bop' no chance of that it seems and bop it does in delivering the epic lines "Well brothers got some moonshine, daddies got molasses, get off of your hillbilly asses", then 'Said And Done' keeps the tempo going over another relentless, acoustic, bluegrass backing.
Final track 'Lone Wolf Waltz' is indeed that with stately fiddle, drums and pedal steel ushering the song in before yet another evocative opening couplet from Martha "A decade of dust, a decade of grit, plagued by the buffalo's curse". This is a lovely, defiant song to end the album, leaving this listener at least with an image of Martha and her band, battered but unbroken, waltzing off into the sunset!
This is a very impressive album. The song writing is strong and lyrically, I am particularly struck by Martha's vivid, scene setting opening lines. Her voice is also just right for binding together genre hopping music such as this and the band playing throughout is sympathetic, sharp and creative. In fact, I imagine it must be a joy to be in Martha's band as each member is given so much room to shine, but always in a way that adds rather than detracts from the overall sound. Lastly, the recording quality is exceptional, crystal clear but with a very organic, live feel and I can't remember the last time I heard such a consistently great drum sound!
It's safe to say 'Dancing Shadows' deserves to do very well indeed for Martha Fields and her band. Thoroughly recommended.
|Pilgrim St: Pilgrim St The EP||Linda Em: London Irish|
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