The Short SistersThe Short Sisters
Album: Downsized
Label: Black Socks Press
Tracks: 16

Let's start with the easy bit: the Short Sisters aren't sisters, and neither are they height-challenged. But they are ladies. Three of 'em. Ladies with fine voices who also sing together in glorious harmony. Which they've been doing since 1979, it appears. So why only now do I finally get to hear 'em? Well, it turns out I owe this to Jez Lowe, on whose recommendation they did a short (what else?!) mini-tour (I hesitate to use the word "tourette"!) during April this year; I checked them out at the Black Swan folk club in York, and was not in any way disappointed. Lovely singers; excellent individual voices that blend so well; intuitive arrangements; canny choice of material; a keen, natural and immediate rapport with each other and their audience; friendly and genuinely approachable folks with no pretensions. Too good to be true? Hell, no!…

So where does Downsized fit into the picture then? It turns out to be only the trio's fifth proper album release in 35 years (its immediate predecessor was 2002's collection Love And Transportation), and back-tracking reveals nothing less than the virtues of constancy, consistency, continuity and integrity running all throughout that timespan. Each disc is like a mini-patchwork that forms a piece of the jigsaw of the massive world of song that the ladies are (still) exploring. And they love sharing their discoveries with an audience: that is evident from the enthusiasm with which they're immediately received. Sure, everything they perform is brilliantly, obviously arranged, calculated even - well, that's the nature of the beast, it has to be if you're doing harmonies; and yet the ladies' performances both retain that essential frisson of cooperative spontaneity and effortlessly convey the sheer joy they experience in singing together - just as siblings would (even tho' they're not!).

The Short Sisters' repertoire is intelligently chosen and wholly inclusive, eagerly embracing quality contemporary writing and songs from the various traditions (whether American, British or African-American): anything from rounds, part songs and Sacred Harp to chorus songs and narrative balladry, thoughtful and reflective to seriously frivolous, via quirky philosophy and other curios from all over the vast musical toyshop in which the ladies thoroughly enjoy being let loose. The voices and the harmonies are necessarily the focus, and a good proportion of the songs are done a cappella, but there's also a limited degree of instrumental accompaniment, accomplished but tastefully understated and thus admirably unobtrusive: the banjo is played by Fay Baird, guitar by Kim Wallach or Kate Seeger (Peggy's niece), the latter also playing autoharp. Just under half of Downsized comprises recent studio recordings, the remainder of the tracks having been captured live at three different venues (ranging from coffee-house to concert-hall).

A beautiful arrangement of Blues Run The Game sits strangely well alongside Jez Lowe's hilarious Vikings and the pithy round Upon Finding Just One (from the pen of Finest Kind's Ann Downey), while the now-classic CB&S "21st century worksong" Twenty-Four Seven provides a lively counterpart both to the chain-gang worksong Lazarus and Otis Jackson's gospel-style call-and-response epic from the New Deal era Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt. The ladies sure like pointing connections! Other significant discoveries during the course of this well-filled disc include the wistful, charming observation Shacks And Chalets (perceptively written by Pete Sutherland over four decades ago, and still very much relevant), and the country-flavoured ghost story (set in Scotland!) of The Piper's Refrain (this one featuring some neat harmonica fills from Dean Spencer), while the ladies also turn in a haunting and sympathetic rendition of Ca' The Yowes (inspired by the version by Louisa Killen). Kim's own considerable songwriting abilities are showcased on the tongue-in-cheekily nostalgic Home In Old New Jersey and the grin-inducing "economic love song" Average Your Income, while she also delivers a skilful and most satisfying part-song setting of Robert Frost's iconic poem Fire And Ice. Finally, the disc's ideal-closing-number It's A Pleasure To Know You (penned by Karl Williams) is sentimental in the nicest possible way.

All in all, Downsized presents The Short Sisters in all their quiet glory, according us the privilege of sharing some wonderful songs in their company in the form of a perfect calling-card. Downsized it may be, in that it's a small and select gathering, but we're in no sense Short-changed by the experience!

David Kidman