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Ross Couper & Tom Oakes Ross Couper & Tom Oakes
Album: Fiddle And Guitar
Label: Haystack
Tracks: 10
Website: http://www.rossandtom.com

OK, what a dull and unimaginative (and at best over-simplistic) title for a disc that’s anything but – even within the literal parameters of the “does what it says on the tin” syndrome. I’m not damning with faint praise here – far from it – for this album is an exciting proposition from the outset – the blurry digipack photos might be held to reflect a listener’s-ear view of the duo’s action-packed playing.

But I must first set the duo in context by providing some background from the press release. Shetland’s Ross Couper is best known as the feisty fiddler with Peatbog Faeries, and here he retains that basic (primal) musicality as naturally as breathing while also finding an unexpected delicacy of expression. Tom Oakes, who originally hails from Totnes in Devon, is already well known as one of the UK’s top exponents of the wooden flute, but here he’s proudly demonstrating his extra skills as a guitarist and composer. Both participants feature heavily among the album’s composition credits, with Tom responsible for six of its tunes and Ross five. And – get this! – they’ve been playing together as a duo for almost a decade, and yet this is their recorded debut! (How come?…)

The disc may begin comparatively gently, with the initial restraint of The Road To Loch nam Bairneas, but very soon the movement of the listener’s feet is likely to become mandatory as the rhythms get more insistent and the phrasing chunkier. What energy, what control of pace and attack, what sense of forward drive. Magnificent! The “hot” playing continues on through the high-octane fiery, choppy Phil Cunningham reel Cathcart, the joyous whirlwind bounce of the Shetland Swing set, the Sunburn/Harriet’s medley’s tricky runs (without spoiling the fun/pun I daren’t quote the full title of the first tune!), and the slimy syncopations of The Chatham Lasses and Strictly Sambuca. Not to mention the twisted Nordic aura of Tom’s original reel Something For The Weakened. The more lyrical side of the duo’s repertoire is represented by 92nd Year, a tender composition by Tom that leads neatly into Annlaug Børsheim’s tune The Lounge Bar; this is nigh surpassed in emotional impact by brooding lament The Last Gasp, which is strategically positioned here as the disc’s penultimate track and contains perhaps a hint of reminiscence of The Shearing’s Not For Me in its attractive counter-melody. What expertly controlled phrasing, what superbly impassioned registration. This is followed by what else but a breakneck finale: not London to Brighton but (even more impressively) Devon To Shetland in 3½ minutes! Halt there at the buffers! The duo’s intense virtuosity and strong rhythmic bite is executed firmly in tandem with their panache. To call Ross and Tom’s playing astounding and compelling would be an understatement indeed.

If you want guitar and fiddle playing done with precision, flair, dexterity and overall finesse par excellence, capped by an intense fire and unbridled energy, then Ross and Tom have all those qualities in spades and you really need look no further. For, with its blazing, nay blistering as-live presence, this is one of those rare all-instrumental albums that I’m destined to replay rather often.

David Kidman