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Reviews

Maddy Prior with Hannah James & Giles Lewin Maddy Prior with Hannah James & Giles Lewin
Album: Shortwinger
Label: Park
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.maddyprior.co.uk

Take one doyenne of the folk world, add in two musical collaborators who are more than capable of holding their own in such exalted company, latch onto a theme and release an album. This appears to be a fair recipe for success.

It certainly is the case when the trio involved are Maddy Prior, lead vocalist with Steeleye Span, and musical partners Hannah James, (Sam Sweeny, Kerfuffle, Lady Maisery) accordion and vocals, and Giles Lewin, (Dufay Collective, Bellowhead, The Carnival Band, Alva) violin and vocals. Their 2012 debut 3 For Joy caused more than a ripple on its release, being heralded as a somewhat left-of-field release, with its subject matter taking inspiration from the Southern Baptist Church tradition, Industrial Revolution tales from Ulster and 14th century poems.

May 25th sees the release of Maddy's second album in partnership with Hannah and Giles. Once again there is a concept/thread running through the entire album, that of the wild field, with a specific focus on birds and hares, indeed the release's title, Shortwinger, refers to someone who keeps and hunts the accipiters or buteoine hawk, (as opposed to a longwinger, someone who keeps and hunts falcons in preference to accipiters and buteoine hawks, a falconer, in the strict sense).

First track, Austringer, a synonym for shortwinger, gets proceedings off at a cracking pace, Maddy's goshawk-centric lyrics being perfectly accompanied by the stirring virtuosity of Giles and Hannah. This is a great opener, enticing the listener to really sit up and listen to what is on offer.

Further avian references abound, with tracks that are a pleasing mix of traditional, contemporary, vocal and instrumental. Thus, The Lark In The Clear Air, with its mid-19th century lyrics by Samuel Ferguson, is given a new setting by Giles, as is the version of Emily Dickinson's The Owl.

Similarly, the unaccompanied Jenny Wren, sees Maddy augment traditional 'Wren Day' lyrics with her own; the song beginning with wonderful harmonies, followed by Hannah taking a solo before returning to an even more glorious three-part harmony in the final section.

Lewin's Flying Boy, written at the time when his son was having flying dreams, demonstrates his undoubted song-writing skill and features some mighty fine accordion playing from Hannah, which reminded me of elements of Ethno in Transit material. Another contemporary offering, this time a cover of Swallow, by River Jones, is a beautiful song concerning the migration and increasing absence of this summer visitor to our shores.

Three instrumentals The Grey Heron, The Lucky Blackbird/House Of White Roses and album closer, The Curlew, further showcase the talents of both Hannah and Giles and assist in helping to provide the light and shade and musical diversity which is such a strong feature of Shortwinger.

The two standout tracks for this reviewer are, however, Murmuration and The Fabled Hare.

Having been fortunate to have witnessed a murmuration on a couple of occasions at Studland Bay in Dorset, the harmonisation of the repetition of the single word 'murmuration' over the opening two minutes and eight seconds and closing one minute perfectly captures, aurally, the visual aerobatic display of the starlings, (if that is not an incongruity). Sonically mesmerising.

As outlined above, not all songs on the album are bird related. When initially released in 1993 on the Year album, The Fabled Hare song cycle was nigh on 12 minutes long, comprised six parts and heavily featured the keyboards of Nick Holland. In contrast, here the version comes in at nearly 14 minutes and loses the keys, but none-the-less remains an elegiac offering of the highest quality, appearing to benefit from Hannah's clog percussion in addition to their credited instrumental contributions.

In an ever-evolving folk music scene, Shortwinger is clearly a valuable contribution to the genre.

David Pratt