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Zoe Mulford Zoe Mulford
Album: Small Brown Birds
Label: Azalea City
Tracks: 12

When the new Joan Baez album, Whistle Down The Wind, is released in March, it's highly likely that one of the songs to be rightly singled out for particular praise will be 'The President Sang Amazing Grace', a number that tells the story of the 2015 Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston and President Obama's subsequent eulogy. However, you can get to hear the song before then courtesy of the woman who wrote it, Philadelphia-born and (intermittently) Manchester-based clawhammer banjo-player Zoe Mulford, her own vocal often likened to Baez.

It happens to also be one of several highlights on this, her first release since 2013 and fifth album, both versions arranged for just voice and piano, although Baez's closes with a more strident and percussive coda.

Working closely with fiddler and mandolinist Tom Kitching alongside Sam McEvoy on cajon and upright bass player Ken Pendergast , it mingles folk influences from both sides of the Atlantic, opening with the vaguely shanty like sway of 'Answer The Knock At The Door', the line about how "the table is laid but there's still room for more" a timely turning of the year call for inclusion of those seeking shelter, refuge or simply companionship.

Featuring Bob Beach on harmonica and an array of imagery drawn from nature, 'Back Door Key' is an open invitation to a former lover to call in if they're ever back that way, but it's not hard to see an extension of the previous track's theme.

If the flowers are blooming here, the setting returns to winter for 'February Thunder', a banjo-led Appalachian flavoured number that, also featuring McEvoy's shimmering cymbals, marries imagery of a physical coming thaw with that of an emotional one of a woman long frozen by some unidentified trauma, a painful breaking of silence and buried secrets that gives way to release and a new beginning, as Mulford on spoons, the song gives way to a coda of the traditional instrumental 'Frosty Morning'.

Indeed, as intimated in the album's title, rebirth and the emergence from adversity and hardship provides the thematic thread, the rhymically lurching ragtime bluesy 'One Damn Thing' serves up a list of both domestic and more wide-ranging mishaps, but maintains the resolve that "we can make it of just take one damn thing at a time."

The album features two covers, the first of which is The Red Clay Ramblers' shanty lullaby 'The Queen Of Skye', Cheryl Prashker proving bodhran and Pat Wictor harmony on a fanciful tale of a bunch of Glaswegian sea dogs off to seek treasure in Carolina and arriving in America by way of a comet and the moon. The second is likely to be rather more familiar, albeit it's unlikely Paul McCartney ever envisioned 'Blackbird' being given a mountain music arrangement for solo banjo. The title track itself appropriately follows and is actually a lively two-minute traditional coloured instrumental for banjo, fiddle and Mark Allen on tin whistle.

Prior to that you get the a couple of particularly dark numbers. Built around sombre piano and melancholic cello, 'Snow On The Junkyard' is firmly in winter's grip, rivers choked with weeds, the cold ground strewn with broken things, snow blocking widows and gathering on gravestones, spring not yet on the horizon of a "bruised-up sky". Then, on the gospel-infused funeral groove blues 'Speak True', Beach and Wictor again doing their thing, thoughts turn to death, legacy and how others will remember you.

'Zillionaire' is somewhat the sore thumb of the album, both musically and lyrically, being a bouncy music hall/cabaret styled satirical poke at corporate greed and labour exploitation showcasing Ross Bellenoit on ukulele; playful and pointed, but it simply doesn't fit with its surroundings.

It does, however, come full circle for the closing number, returning to the opening track's open house theme with the gently lolloping, fiddle and mandolin-backed 'Won't You Come On In?' Mulford joined by the eight piece Back Porch Choir on the singalong chorus as strangers and guests are invited in to share a drink, bread, time and perhaps little music too before leaving as friends. It's an invitation you'd be remiss not to take up.

Mike Davies