Rosie’s hitherto probably best known as one-third of The Dovetail Trio, whose album Wing Of Evening was one of the most notable debut records of 2015. She was subsequently a Horizon Award nominee at last year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and has also appeared on a brace of excellent albums by Sheffield-based melodeon player and singer Ollie King. Now she’s releasing her own debut solo album (apparently there was an EP back in 2011, but sadly that didn’t come my way). From an early age, Rosie has developed a keen interest in the history of traditional songs, particularly those of her native Wiltshire and those collected in the years prior to World War One by Alfred Williams (a local hammerman, poet, linguist and historian), of which she has recorded eight for this album and from the introduction of whose published collection Folk Songs Of The Upper Thames (1923) the disc’s title is sourced.
What strikes one immediately on The Beautiful And The Actual is the distinctiveness of Rosie’s own musical personality, her tremendous air of confidence and a level of accomplishment that betrays no trace of the tentativeness that might normally be a feature of a debut record. Her singing voice engages your attention immediately and holds it, being pure and strong, her interpretive powers keen and her approach to text-setting both enterprising and illuminating, showing a clear respect for, and awareness of, traditional modes. In this latter context, Rosie has composed entirely credible new melodies for The Cruel Mother and The Red Herring, the altogether less-well-known The Little Blind Girl and the obscure pun-laden Baker’s Oven, along with those for her own charismatic original songs including Adrift, Adrift (the thoughts of a refugee on a Mediterranean “ghost ship”) and Dorothy Lawrence (the tale of a brave cross-dressing First World War reporter).
For Rosie has also of late been rapidly developing her songwriting skills with the aid of her mentor Emily Portman (whose voice joins Rosie’s on the chilling a cappella Cruel Mother and the somewhat appositely titled A Furlong Of Flight). Even on those songs for which Rosie has chosen to adopt traditional tunes, she manages to evoke an aura of freshness and originality – for example Lover’s Ghost (a variant of Holland Handkerchief) and Lord Lovel, the latter done as a tender duet with Jefferson Hamer. Which brings me to remark on Rosie’s skill in assembling, with the aid of producer Tom A. Wright, a superb supporting cast of musicians to help her realise her vision for the songs. A vital element of the texture is Emma Smith’s lithe, driven yet responsive, sometimes bluesy or jazzy double bass work on two-thirds of the tracks, while Ollie King’s sprightly melodeon playing graces three and string arrangements featuring The Barber Sisters embellish three more. And the disc’s opening track (Lover’s Ghost) could hardly be more arresting: Rosie’s account of the narrative is sung to an exceedingly eerie drone creation that includes Rosie’s own fiddle. Indeed, I will praise all of Rosie’s arrangements for their astute awareness of textural possibility and their adherence to the service of the songs.
The Beautiful And The Actual is also beautifully packaged, with exemplary attention to detail in the booklet notes and appealing, classic (and classily stylish) design features. It’s a strikingly assured and individual debut album by any standards, and I’d not be surprised if it features prominently in this year’s award nomination lists.
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