I’ve been waiting a while for this second full-length album from Hertfordshire-based female trio Said The Maiden, and it’s been most eagerly anticipated too by those who managed to catch the ladies live at one of their many festival appearances or purchased the intriguing stop-gap EP Of Maids And Mariners which the trio released last year.
Hannah Elizabeth, Jess Distill and Kathy Pilkinton are noted for their lively and spontaneous stage presence and an imaginative approach to their chosen material, and Here’s A Health (title taken from a line in the ribald The Bird In The Bush, one of the album’s several spirited a cappella successes) contains elements of both strengths, although necessarily providing a satisfyingly repeatable listening experience.
Once again Hannah, Jess and Kathy mix their own arrangements (and in some cases also original settings) of traditional texts with a small number of self-penned compositions and a couple of covers. Especially impressive here are their fresh versions of two Child ballads (Sweet William’s Ghost and The Bonnie Earl o’Moray) and a chilling take on In The Pines, all of which build a powerful atmosphere by the use of drone accompaniment (violin or piano accordion). Here, as throughout, the use of spare instrumentation is both restrained and subtle, and since the previous album A Curious Tale STM’s instrumentation has expanded to incorporate violin, mandolin, piano accordion, flute, whistle, guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, clarinet and electric bass (there’s also banjo on one track, provided by Chris Cleverley, and double bass on a further pair of tracks, provided by Lukas Drinkwater).
But it’s in the vocal harmony department that STM have always excelled, where they invariably produce some natural and intuitive inventions that can literally take one’s breath away. Their blend of voices is miraculous, and so naturally achieved. The trio transports us almost effortlessly from chirpy (the puckishly wordy Tom Paxton tale of Jennifer’s Rabbit) to meditative (the standout track, the gorgeous Richard Fariña song Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood, which the trio were encouraged and requested to learn by the late Dave Swarbrick, whom they supported on his UK solo tour in 2015 – this being a goosebump moment indeed). Jess’s dark and sinister composition Black Annis (voicing a warning to children of the legendary Leicestershire witch) is sparsely accompanied too, with atmospheric background harmonies. Children are also in mind on The Birds’ Courting Song, which is believed to originate from an Appalachian nursery-rhyme (but STM say they learned it from The Muppets!). The remaining tracks, both self-penned, are positively jovial in contrast: Take The Night is an almost too rollicking account of another local (Hertfordshire – Markyate) legend, highwaywoman The Wicked Lady, while Polly Can You Swim? is a studio remake (complete with “sailors’ chorus” by Andrew Simmons Elliott and sundry FX) of the rousing shanty-like chorus song performed live on the aforementioned EP. (Actually, the latter seems to stick out a bit like a proverbial sore thumb amidst the rest of the album, and feels to have been included just for contrast-ballast – but then, you’d probably appreciate it better if you hadn’t heard the EP or live version.)
If you’ve not yet succumbed to the delights of Said The Maiden, then now’s the time to make the acquaintance of these talented young ladies. Your health could well be significantly improved by a liberal dose of their latest album.
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