The lovely mother-and-daughter album Gift (2010) was Norma and Eliza's first project together, and one of my albums-of-that-year. But I have to say that, notwithstanding its being doubly eagerly awaited, the announcement of its eventual appearance (with a release date of 1st June) still took me by surprise. Inevitably, and for all sorts of reasons, Gift has proved a totally hard act to follow; and to be honest I'm not sure its eventual followup Anchor quite reaches that pinnacle (but I'll reserve final judgement for a few more close playthroughs). But it's still a considerable achievement, not least because at one point, and for some time, the prospect of any such album being made was counted a very remote possibility when Norma became seriously ill on the Gift tour and had to spend several months in hospital in a critical condition. Praise be, then, that Norma recovered so well, and while she's no longer able to perform live to any reliable extent, she's managed to find the strength to contribute in the studio (very close to home) to this new joint album with Eliza. And thankfully too, Norma's singing continues to display all the passion, and compassion, that have always been a hallmark of her music-making with her family (most especially with daughter Eliza).
So, the choice of material for Anchor is both intelligently thematic and widely (as in wildly) eclectic. This range of songs naturally showcases the ladies' vocal expertise, covering a tremendous gamut of musical and emotional situations - although having said that, even the most seasoned and musically broad-minded of listeners may well be surprised at a couple of their song choices here. Not that the strict definition of the "F" word (by which I mean "folk, of course!) has ever bothered either singer, for all that they're both celebrated for their championing of folk tradition; yet in spite of this, only three of Anchor's eleven tracks are trad-arrs. Eliza's in the forefront on the album's take on The Elfin Knight, which is done in the manner of a call-and-response shanty with a strong sense of fun and musical theatre, an almost Kurt Weill ambience and a rather sinisterly jaunty banjo rhythm above which she delivers some devilish fiddle solos before the train finally hits the buffers.
But even before we encounter The Elfin Knight, Norma is truly in the ascendancy on the album's opening track, an arresting and subtly chilling version of Tom Waits' enigmatic Strange Weather wherein she captures the lyric's peculiar vulnerability with her telling phrasing and wearily laconic tone; the occasion's incarnation of the Gift Band excels itself, making the most out of the edgy textures of double bass, electric guitar, piano, cor anglais, and saxophone (and I think ebow). This deft and intriguingly creative approach to instrumental colour extends to the rest of the album: the backdrops conjured by the production team of Neill MacColl and Kate St. John are nothing short of masterly, with glistening touches around every corner. However, this practice, while undoubtedly grabbing one's attention, also manages the tricky feat of not deflecting from the song characterisations in the core performances of Norma and Eliza themselves. Having made that point though, Norma's peerless rendition of Michael Marra's amazing song The Beast receives probably the album's starkest, yet most dynamically responsive backdrop (centred around Eliza's sinuous, hushed violin and a plaintive cor anglais) and must be counted its standout track. Its nominal "companion piece", Nick Lowe's The Beast In Me, is another unexpected choice for Norma, but she carries it off with exemplary poise and understanding, helped again by an intimate sonic backdrop. An unhurried treatment of The Widow's Party (a Kipling poem which Peter Bellamy set to the tune normally associated with Dillen Doll or the Liverpool Lullaby) starts out with Martin Carthy joining Eliza before an eastern-European-style interlude ushers in the ensemble layered voices and instruments.
The central section of the disc makes for a kind of whimsical space-girl cabaret, bringing together the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson show tune Lost In The Stars (affectingly done as a duet) and a real curveball entry in the shape of the Galaxy Song (from Monty Python's Meaning Of Life movie), where Eliza vamps gleefully to the accompaniment of twinkling piano and chirpy whistling (nice enough for the live show, but it palls a bit on record when the novelty wears off). After travelling to the furthest reaches of the universe, we then "voyage home" (in Trek-speak!) with Shanty Of The Whale, a brilliant 2011 composition by KT Tunstall that's not only an enormously powerful (indeed, almost unbearably sad) statement in its own right but was also (we're told) inspired by, and pays respectful homage to, the singing of The Watersons. The whole Waterson family repays the compliment by providing a "ghostly choir" here that dwells amongst the scary, atmospheric ambient sounds of "underwater". This is another of the handful of tracks on which the distinctive voice of Martin Carthy joins the fray. He also contributes a solo song, Scarborough Fair, which updates his original recording of a whole half-century ago with an eerily knowing new vocal interpretation. In effect, this latest account brings the whole family connection full circle, employing Eliza's violin alongside his own unmistakable guitar and punctuated by sparse piano chordings, banjo and double bass. But I almost expected Norma to come in with the woman's verses and make it a true duet (a missed opportunity?); I was left with the nagging question of why it was included, since it draws the focus away from Norma and Eliza (after all it's their party!). Having said that, it's also fair to interpret its inclusion as a kind of affectionate gift from one family member to another - just as all the songs on the album are well-loved hand-me-downs in one form or other.
The final stage of the album begins with another of its key performances, a passionate, emotionally charged and finally rousing 7½-minute rendition of Nelly Was A Lady, Stephen Foster's brave commentary on the unashamed bringing-together of black and white folks led by Eliza's stirring fiddle and bringing in the entire vocal ensemble in unity for the chorus. Unfortunately, this tremendous family-bonding performance is succeeded by possibly the disc's most disposable track, an encore-level chummy-strummy ukulele-backed singalong Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star that's a distinct anti-climax. In which context I'll bring in my one other gripe… I'm told that the digital download version of this album includes two bonus tracks - Wild Colonial Boy and We Have An Anchor - for which there would've easily been "space" on the CD… omission of the latter song (a sailor's hymn that would've been sung in the "Congo" chapel that was used for the recording) seems especially surprising given the album's all-embracing and emblematic title (most illogical, Mister Spock!…).
|The Friel Sisters: Before The Sun||Laura Benitez & The Heartache: With All It's Thorns|
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