Said The MaidenSaid The Maiden
Album: A Curious Tale
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 11

I was sufficiently impressed with this Hertfordshire-based threesome (Hannah Elizabeth, Jess Distill and Kathy Pilkinton) when just over a year ago I reviewed their very first recording, the tantalising EP Come Hither, to be confidently forecasting that the young ladies would produce a rather fine full-length debut album proper before too long. Here then, right on cue, comes an equally confident 39-minute record which both develops their sound (with more, and increasingly adventurous, instrumentation) and broadens their repertoire (with the tentative inclusion of some self-penned material). Their stage presence is already mildly legendary, having already supported the likes of Megson, Clannad and Dave Swarbrick (who didn't appear to need much persuading to guest on one of the tracks on this new record!); it seems logical, therefore, that Said The Maiden should now be also developing their prowess in the studio, taking a mature approach to the art of recording. This certainly shows in the arrangements, which explore the use of an altogether greater variety of instruments than hitherto (guitar and violin being selectively augmented by accordion, mandolin, tiple, clarinet, flute, whistles and glockenspiel), while if anything the vocal harmonies are even more assured and genuinely complementary than previously (and they were pretty darned impressive before!).

It's good, too, that STM remain entirely unafraid to showcase their very special brand of a cappella harmony by presenting four of the disc's eleven tracks in pure unadulterated unaccompanied mode. I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love This Night and a particularly refreshing reflective take on the John Conolly classic Fiddlers' Green are probably the joint a cappella highlights of the disc, in fact. Of the accompanied tracks, I'd especially rate STM's clear-sighted, mournfully expressive False, False with its spicily clashing harmonies and swooning accordion backing, and a full-textured exploration of Silver Dagger which features drones and double-stopped violin. Further album standouts come with the well-contrasted pair of non-traditional songs: A Sailor's Promise sets Jess's distinctly traditional-sounding words to "a tune based on a tune by her dad", to telling effect, while The Rabbit's Bride is a decidedly quirky curio taking its roundabout cue from a Grimm fairytale of that title (whence cameth the trio's own name!) - a somewhat wyrd-folk-sounding number with a surprisingly spooky (one might say rabbit-burrow-sepulchral) guest-vocal turn by James O'Hara Knight.

If I'm permitted to be mildly critical, well perhaps not all of STM's experiments quite come off: for instance, the gospel-style vibe of the clapping that backs I Wish, I Wish might outstay its welcome after a few plays, and I'm not fully convinced of the decision to re-record Shady Grove so soon after its appearance on the Come Hither EP merely for the sake of including a few extra verses (notwithstanding the undoubted kudos of securing Swarb's joyously driven contribution). Also (tho' I might be thought too picky here), I personally might consider some of the choices of traditional songs a touch too oft-heard - but then again, it's what the trio does with them that matters, and in that respect their treatments are in the majority of cases surely sufficiently inventive to more than pass muster and stand up to any competition. For all its maturity, A Curious Tale inevitably still feels a work of transition and cautious experimentation, but one which ponders the question of whether the trio will henceforth benefit artistically from diverting more of their energies into producing self-penned compositions. But then again, even with the traditional material, the girls have got so much right in so short a space of time…

And by the way, one final big plus-point for A Curious Tale is the remarkably attractive, beautifully produced packaging, which sports some really appealing artwork by Chloë Harmsworth that so accurately captures the music within through a haunting mix of child-friendly traditional art and charming, if slightly dark fairytale/mythical influences.

David Kidman