"Northern Lights" is Suntrap's fifth album, but it is almost a decade since their last release, "Unravelling". Their sound has changed somewhat since then, due to line up changes, though they are still a multi-instrumental vocal harmony band. Suntrap was formed by Sara Byers and Mary Wilson in 1996, after meeting at a gig in Cecil Sharp House in Camden, and they were soon joined by Paul Hoad. In 2002, whilst Mary was on maternity leave, they were joined by Nicola Hillary on violin, who stayed as a fourth member when Mary returned. Over the years they have had a couple of line up changes, but Sara, Mary and Paul remained constant throughout. All three have remarkable voices so with the mixture of male and female voices, extraordinary harmonies were their hallmark.
In 2015, however, Paul decided it was time for a break, and they became a three piece outfit, comprising Mary on lead vocals, harmony vocals, mandolin and violin, Sara on lead vocals, harmony vocals, guitar, accordion, ukulele, banjo, bodhran and whistles, with John Sandall (who had previously played with them on drums I believe), as harmony vocals, violin, viola, cello and ukulele. In May of 2015, at a gig at the Ram Club in Thames Ditton, they invited Sue Graves, known as the Surrey Nightingale, to join them on a few tracks and Sue rapidly became the fourth member of the band (lead vocals, harmony vocals, guitar and ukulele). They are thus now a fourpart harmony band, largely with female voices, so perhaps the nearest similar band I know is Said The Maiden. John does have a lovely voice, but I think he lacks the confidence to take lead, but it will come with time to add yet another dimension to Suntrap's multi-faceted crystal sound.
As a slight aside, to demonstrate how brilliant Sue's voce is, Radio Wales once did a tie-in with Twickfolk at the time of an England-Wales Rugby match (held at Twickenham). Not being a rugby fan, but knowing that both Brian Willoughby and Sue Graves were going to be performing I'd gone along, completely unaware of how brilliant an evening it was going to be. First time I'd heard the amazing Grammy winner Amy Wadge and first time I'd heard the wonderful Luke Jackson. To my utter delight and amazement as well, Ralph McTell also turned up. At the end of the evening all the singers joined Ralph for a rendition of "The Streets Of London", a song that Ralph must have sung thousands of time. I don't think I have ever seen a face light up with such delight as his did when he heard Sue's harmonies accompanying him. With Sue on board, Suntrap now have three of the best female vocalists in Surrey.
This is the first album with the new line up and I can't imagine how it could be improved. Every note, every harmony, every song is utterly gorgeous. It was recorded by Tom Evans at his studio in Sussex, and he joined them on accordion, pedal steel, guitar, bass, double bass, hand bells and even birdsong.
The album features 15 tracks, two of which segue into instrumentals, so in fact there are really seventeen songs, so it is extremely jam packed. They did actually record twenty tracks in the studio (twenty-two if you count the instrumentals), so they had to work really hard to squeeze the material onto one CD.
"Northern Lights" features three original tracks by Mary, four by Sara (though one is a reworking of a song on their 2005 album "Sweet Fast River"), an instrumental by John, a traditional track and the rest being covers from a wide variety of sources. The selection covers almost every single emotion from heart lifting happy songs through to deeply tragic songs.
The extensive sleeve notes give all the information you could want: the original writer, what the song is about, who played which instrument, etc. I have to say I slightly disagree with the sleeve note description of their tradional offering "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray", though Wikipedia sides with them. The song is Child ballad 201, Roud 237 and is sung from the point of view of someone in love with two women who both die from the plague. Wikipedia, and the sleeve notes both think that the girls caught the plague from their lover, the singer, but the lyrics seem to say something different perhaps even darker to me. I think the two girls lived together in their bower, not to avoid the plague, but because they were in love with eachother. The singer, who was spurned by them throughout their lives for reasons beyond his comprehension, now seeing their lifeless bodies wants to "lie" with them, I think meaning that he wants to be buried with them so that their poor souls will be forced to spend eternity forever bound with his, not caring that they didn't want to spend time with him whilst living. Either way, it is a pretty tragic song, but then folk music is renowned for its death count.
The title track "Northern Lights", penned by Mary, is apparently in memory of her Uncle. He worked looking after special care babies, spending his life looking after others, but finally found true love (his Northern lights that he had been searching for) at the end of his days. This first track really sets the bar high for the rest of the album to live up to. About half way through, just at the point that the various vocal threads peak in complexity, Tom's keyboards, Sara's accordion, Mary's mandolin, and Sue's guitar all weave together under a fantastic hypnotic violin riff from John, to create a wonderfully intricate crescendo.
"Sea Fever", also written by Mary, is based round the poem of the same name by John Masefield, with permission from the Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of John Masefield's estate. The violins along with Sara and Tom's accordion, give an eerie, windswept feel to this. You can almost feel the sea spray on your face! You can almost smell the sea spray! And with the occassional birdsong added by Tom, you could almost believe that you were on a tall ship, steering by the stars. When performed live in the past they used to segue this with a violin duo from Mary and John, a traditional tune called "The New Rigged Ship". On the album this has now been replaced with a tune written by John, called "Beyond The Tide", again a violin duo. I'm sorry to offend any orchestras out there that might be reading this, but this really is music at its very best. I would far rather listen to John and Mary's violin playing than sit through a concert by the LSO.
Mary's other song on the album "Riding High" is again wonderfully intricate and quite psychedelic. It brims with the excitement of waking up in the morning on the day of a first date.
I have to admit that I adore Sara's songwriting. Two of the tracks that they recorded that didn't make it were Sara originals, so I look forward to the next album for them. Most of her songs are either tinged with misandry or dreams of unfulfilled erotic Sapphic lust and consequential guilt. (Misandry, if you're not aware, is the antonym to misogyny, and I use the term Sapphic not in the poetry meter sense of the word). My interpretation of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray would make it a typical Sara themed song. "Wrecker", one of the tracks that didn't fit on the album, is about a lying, cheating, murderous husband and the wife's glee that he is destined for the Hangman's noose. In "Bird In The Hand", the other of her songs that was recorded but not included on the final cut, again the protagonist is a lying male, who suddenly leaves a relationship to follow some dream of his.
"Michaelmas" follows a similar theme, but perhaps neeeds more explanation. There is a myth that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from the heavens, the Devil fell to Earth and landed in a blackberry bush. Every year, at Michaelmas, Lucifer spits on the blackberry fruits rendering them poisonous. To demonstrate that the man in this song is a liar, Sara uses the wonderfully poetic but archaic term 'lip-traps'. To get back at his lip-traps, she will feed him blackberries after the 29th of September.
The title "Reeling" in Sara's song is the sort of reeling that a fisherman does to a fish hooked on a line, drawing it in from the saftey of the river. Whilst watching a pretty dancer, dressed in silks, she is suddenly embarrassed to find that she is blushing as unbidden erotic thoughts come unexpectedly to her. The dancer has caught her imagination, and is reeling her in. They are obviously in public, the thoughts are just fantasy and nothing is going to become of this encounter, but it is such a delicate and tender song, it is beautiful. The attached video of this song was from a concert that was booked at a time when John was in Germany, so only features Sara, Mary and Sue. On record John is playing viola and cello, so if you like the video you'll love the album.
Like "Reeling", "Peacock Skirt" is also about inappropriate erotic thoughts. The song originally appeared on "Sweet Fast River". A friend, who has stood by her through all sorts of adversity is now in trouble herself, but won't come to Sara for support. Whilst trying to offer a shoulder to cry on, she suddenly becomes aware of how soft her friend's skin is, and again she is hooked by lustful thoughts that could threaten their friendship if there was just one stolen kiss. The lyrics are perhaps the most graphically erotic I have heard - 'Deep inside your forest when the sun goes down, I'll pull you open like a curtain'.
There's nothing at all in the lyrics of "Night Flying" to give any indication as to whether the object of fantasy is male or female. Given that in her other songs most men seem to end up as liars and cheats, I've made the assumption that it's a female, possibly even the peacock-skirt-wearing friend. I'll leave your interpretation up to you. "Night Flying is about being happily married, but whilst asleep, you dream of somebody else rather than your partner. You then get annoyed with that other person for two reasons. Firstly, they have no right to be breaking in to your unconscious dreams, and secondly, how dare they not be dreaming about you.
As well as all that, the album also features many beautiful covers such as Nancy Kerr's "Dark Honey", a gloriously optomistic song about how life adapts and survives through adversity, citing city bees as an example. Where there is just concrete, bees survive by taking nectar from flowers on graves, or from drinking sugar from discarded coke cans.
Suntrap's rendition of Thea Gilmore's "Midwinter Song" is enhanced beautifully by some handbells, rung by Tom and Sue Evans.
The original version of Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like a Wheel" was sung with harmonies by the McGarrigle Sisters, so was an ideal song for Suntrap to cover. It does have the reputation of being one of the saddest songs ever, and Suntrap pull no punches. If you're not in tears by the end, you've probably never had your heart broken. The song segues beautifully into an instrumental by Johnny Cunningham called "Night In That Land". The piece oozes Scotland and somehow the combination of violins and accordion manage to give the impression of bagpipes. Having just had your emotions torn to ribbons by "Heart Like A Wheel", "Night In That Land" is also very emotive. The tune is filled with majesty and is quite uplifting, like the rolling Scottish hills, but there's also a deep underlying sadness and lonliness there. A very clever piece of music that can make you soar and cry simultaneously.
I guess many people these days think that "Make You Feel My Love" was written by Adele, but it was, of course, originally a Dylan song. Suntrap's version is sung against a background of just a solo ukuelele, beautifully played by Sue. In years to come, maybe future generations will assume that it is a Suntrap original.
Sue also takes the lead on their cover of Joni Mitchell's "Carey", and Paul McCartney's "Here There And Everywhere". McCartney's lyrics are obviously about a girl, but when Emmylou Harris covered the song she replaced 'she' with 'he' and 'her' with 'his' throughout, so Sue follows Emmylou Harris's lyrics.
The final track on this packed album is "Sweet Pea", originally written by Amos Lee, but Suntrap first heard it played by Miranda Sykes. John emulates Stephane Grappelli's style of violin playing accompanied by Sue's ukuele, giving this a 1920's swing feel.
The album launch will be at Twickfolk on Sunday September the 22nd. Knowing that they've already recorded two more Sara originals and a cover of Suzanne Vega's "The Queen And The Soldier" leads me to hope that it won't be long before they are launching their sixth album.
|Annie Keating: Can't Stand Still||Paul Cauthen: Room 41|
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