Reviews

Songs of SeparationVarious Artists
Album: Songs of Separation
Label: Navigator
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.songsofseparation.co.uk/

Introduction

In June 2015 there was quite a bit going on. News of Greece and it's debt repayments was widespread and frightened the world economy and data hacking from China might well have left you feeling unsafe, and this was just the beginning. But on the the Isle of Eigg (Scotland) there was a different meeting of minds and power struggles. While the event itself was quiet in the grand scheme of things, in terms of the folk world it was a meeting of giants with some high profile artists coming together with the goal of creating and recording a concept album around the theme of "separation". As Mary Macmaster (featured on the disc) points out, the biggest potential separation of recent times was still fairly fresh in people's minds, i.e. the Scottish Referendum, and this undoubtedly fed into the feelings and themes of the CD, "Songs of Separation".

Album and Inspirations

The album was conceived by Jenny Hill, an influential double bass player who has brought her experiences of collaboration and working knowledge of organisation from employment in the third sector (and her own contributions to music) to bring this idea to life. With the assistance of eminent record company Navigator Records as well as support from Enterprise Music Scotland, Creative Scotland/England and Arts Council England it seems that the intention is that some of the magic of the Island of Eigg is intended to rub off on the rest of the British Isles, but what is Eigg?

Eigg is a magical place. It is an Island in Scotland and a good choice to go in search of inspiration from history and story; the bed fellows of great folk music. In Gaelic the island is known as "Eilean nam Ban Mora" (The Island of the Big Women) after a myth about a group of warrior women who defended the Island from Christian invaders only to meet an untimely end being bewitched by the spirits of their victims that led them into the loch to their doom. I wouldn't have thought that wailing spirits from Christian missionaries seemed like fair play really; but it is best to be thankful that nothing "that" inspirational occurred to the folk artists during the brainstorming for this album, I'd imagine that even in June the waters would be a bit nippy there to even go paddling.

"Song's of Separation" is truly a compilation and a half. It draws in artists familiar to all folk fans: Eliza Carthy, Karine Polwart, Hazel Askew Hannah Read and several others, and makes the choice of showing the several historical facets of separation by mixing traditional songs with new material. It is interesting that the solitary notions of "parting" central to the theme and presentation of the album are best realised through shared collaboration, but then loss is universal and unique at the same time. The project paints some broad brush-strokes and does this by allowing both Scottish and English artists/voices on the album and all the richness that this approach entails shines through quite clearly. The Youtube series of the collaborative process points towards the album's creation being a product of hard work but also a joy and obvious love for the profession and art.

The Tracks

There are 12 tracks with breath-taking variety on this compilation. They all struck me differently with some clear favourites emerging. On an album of such diversity and quality it feels wrong to exclude discussion of some of the tracks so I will consider them all here below.

The album begins with a traditional number, "Echo Mocks the Corncrake" sung by Karine Polwart. It is a powerful traditional song to start the album. Polwart's voice takes authority amongst the Corn Crake samples (think of a cricket, but looking like a bird) and minimalist instrumentals. Early on it is like being on the hunt to spot a Corn Crake (though there are no problems hearing one given the distinctive grating sound they make). The theme is playfully explored later on in the song with Polwart's Corncrake-like human echoes as the fiddle cranks up and the song opens up further. The primary connection of the Corn Crake to Scottish and Irish land and tradition, the reverberating echoes of it's distinctive sound, and it's own exodus to Africa for migration make it a three-way wordplay around the theme of separation in a clever kind of way. It is a solid start to the album.

In the second track,"It was a' for our rightfu' king" the artist Hannah Read returns to Eigg following her own personal separation. Moving from Scotland to New York (and a few other places in between) could make her as the blueprint from which the thematic relevance of the album derives from, as her experience is possible the most intimate and immediate of the other artists (as she grew up on Eigg). She does not overshadow anyone though, her rendition is skillful and just one of the several voices of separation that are showcased to the listener on this disc, a three dimensional examination of the subject matter. Her urban experiences, time away and take on folk outside of Scotland and England links with the spiritually sound decision for her inclusion on the album. "It was a' for our rightfu' king" is a light bluegrass reinvention of the Robert Burns poem/ballad of loss at it's greatest; the loss of ones familiar place and home shores never to be seen again. Her own travels and career come in and the influence of American folk is a shrewd and confident working on this album. It is a fresh sound and subconsciously unlike the reading and trappings of the poetry, which in itself is a testament to how well it is performed and reworked.

Poor Man's Lamentation is a multi-stringed, punchy wonder of such musical legs that the disc is at this point at risk of dancing out of your audio equipment. Hannah James' voice is equal part intrigue and quiet strength and the song has the depth and mix of body and sound not unlike a 1970s Antiquary whisky, a fine blend of several tasty elements. Jenny Hill's bass playing is a powerful accompaniment as the haunting boom which the song plays around as it talks of heaven and earth as a musical odyssey, "The earth would be a holy place, as paradise above, could we but teach the human race equality and love". Simply put, it is a masterpiece in execution and adaptation from James, probably my favourite track on the album.

"Sad the Climbing" (S Trom an Direadh )(Track 4) and "Sad am I" (Track 5) (Mary Macmaster) burn themselves into your memory in different ways to the tracks up to this point. Macmaster brings the Eigg community together for the forth number on the disc and in a way returns everything to the heart of the album, the Island of Eigg itself. I cannot attest to the meaning or understanding of it's Gaelic lyrics and traditions, except to say it is an embracing snapshot into the world on the island and the culture it is home to. Track 5 in contrast is a Gaelic foot-tapper which also with Macmaster's direction brings a range and energy to the disc. Mary's presence is quintessential as a stalwart revivalist of Scottish harp music and folk generally.

"Cleaning the Stones" (Track 6) from Eliza Carthy has a traditional feel; but it also shines with classic overtures and instrumental order. It weaves and grows and has a good sense of place, taking its time to worm into your head (as the longest track on the disc). Carthy's voice is as distinguished as always, and the song's placement in the middle of the disc is like the banner of the album uniting the various old folk songs and modern works together with a new work that is pretty timeless in sound and execution, "I'll never forget her shining gold eyes".

The "Unst Boat Song" is as old as it gets. It is from the Shetlands, a place of time immemorial where people and the land live together closely in a highly romanticised and literately envied way. As a location for the Celts and the Scandinavians together it historically embodies the notion of separation and the fertile stories of magic, myth (such as the "selkie" shapeshifter folk) and the separation of the sea. The song takes an almost reverential tone as it is recorded within the Cathedral Cove hearkening to visions of how we see might see the earliest folk songs that came into being and make the link through this album. Being led by Karine Polwart you can hear nature, water and the soothing repetition of the hymn comforting like a primal mother energy. The raw reverence of folk is effectively tapped and it is done in such an inspired way.

"London Lights" has a swing feel. You can picture Hazel Askew walking down the cobbled streets while the market lights sigh (which is pretty good considering the song would mostly have come together in a place far from the bustle of this environment). It is a lullaby, it is like falling into a warm blanket that doesn't seem to end (not at all like my quilt unfortunately) with the sound of festivities round the corner, "See how the London lights are shining through the frost and snow." It would probably clean up at Christmas time given the associations it draws. Thankfully, given the distance of time, no connotations with the duet by Meghan Trainor and Harry Styles are likely to be considered. Askew's song is warmer and timeless, and she doesn't try to rhyme "hazel eyes" with "catch no sleep tonight" and pondering adolescent stirrings in the dead of night. But then I suppose comparing the two would be like comparing a sea sponge to a glass of Babysham, they are for different crowds.

Speaking of sea sponges, track 9 "Sea King" could be called an individual number by anyone's book. The nautical theme of sea creatures and weird things going on remind me a bit of the "Curse of a Dead Man's Eye" from Ange Hardy's great work this year (Esteesee). Kate Young has a restless, and wavering old-world voice that puts flesh to the imaginative world within this song. It feels like a cross between Neil Gamin and Clive Barker putting together some underworld eco-system while Young broodily chips in with the director's commentary. I love the hand claps in the backing arrangement they are quite visceral, rough and briny and fit into the song really well (similarly effective to their use in the incredible Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus" at the beginning of BBC's Luther). In a strange turn of events I have found more things to compare this track to then everything else on the album but it is it's own beast, distinctive and unique even in an album of this high quality. Like track 8 before it is another highlight.

"Soil and Soul" is Rowan Rheingan's (of Lady Maisery fame) look at the relationships between people, the man-made and nature. This song is philosophical and non-judgemental. The lyrics blisteringly explore the call of time and how what we consider important at the moment might or might not matter; the artist cannot call the shots on this, "time will tell if the cuckoo call is sweeter than the church bill or the school bell or the factory bell." It muses on all these things and looks across time at what is valued now and what was valued hundreds of years ago, putting everything in perspective. It is superb, Rheingan's voice brings you close to choking up (in the best possible way) as the backing instrumentation paints a rich and thoughtful image of the concepts within this song. Yet again, a great addition to the disc.

Track 11, "Over the Border" is a song encompassing the voices of Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy who are joined by the other artists. "Over the Border" has a build up towards a combination of plucky strings and a deep bass. The lyrics point towards the more optimistic feelings of separation being an illusion and differences being immaterial, "The gates and the borders will all fade away". This song more than any other on the playlist hints at the artists pooled thoughts of the independence referendum. Its light tone takes the broad introspection of the previous track and turns the attitude up to a slow march of peace as the album builds towards joy as it approaches it's end.

The final track "Road less travelled" offers the sage advice of letting the weary traveller decide when to return home and how they are to do it with the lyric, "walk your own way home". Polwart's voice is like a light Scots Pine table drenched in spilled breakfast honey all jewelled and syrupy. The minor harmonies alongside some precise finger and slide work (Jenn Butterworth) promise the end of separation and how ends are not always final as the disc stops. A happy note and a pleasant bookend.

All in All

There is little to criticise. While exploring the nooks and crannies and interesting parts of Eigg the artists failed to leave any stone unturned or any underdeveloped, extraneous material remain on the disc to pull apart.

It's voice and theme is a well-considered motley of songs of different form (Sea King), interpretation (Track 2) and reflective thoughts (Soil and Soul), and is a literary pleasure to listen to through and through.

As a collaboration it is immensely successful, in terms of arrangement it is polished and it has the hallmarks of high-calibre research and workings of historical songs. It has a brazen and multifarious approach to separation that cleverly adapts and develops the two nations' proud heritage of oral folk song into a relevant and accomplished treat that traditional folk and other folk will enjoy in equal measure.

Peter Taranaski

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