It might seem a tad nepotistic, even incestuous, but the game of musical chairs currently circulating the upper echelon of English folk is engineering some exceedingly tasteful albums, of which Murmurs and The Spyglass & the Herringbone are prime examples. Hard on the heels of their involvement in The Full English and The Elizabethan Session, singer-guitarist Martin Simpson and female violin-playing vocalist Nancy Kerr team up with ace accordionist Andy Cutting in a distinguished new trio.
In an equally invigorating configuration, former Unthanks and Imagined Village member Jackie Oates — another awardwinning violin and viola-brandishing songstress with a flair for collaboration — is supported by a handful of the British folk scene’s finest young male players, including multi-instrumentalist older brother Jim Moray and banjoist/producer Ben Walker.
Murmurs’ strength lies in its thoughtful recreations of dog-eared traditional odes that have been recorded by folk royalty over the years, most notably Simpson’s former partner-in-rhyme June Tabor. Set to a suitably dark and compelling 5/4 melody that matches the infanticide ballad’s strangely hypnotic subject matter, The Cruel Mother and another album highlight, the broadside The Plains of Waterloo, showcase Simpson’s expressive vocals and guitar finger-picking and slide playing. The trio’s dominant member is similarly effective in versions of other old chestnuts, inspired by definitive covers of yore by Hedy West and Martin Carthy ( Fair Rosamund and Broomfield Hill). In rousing renditions of traditional tunes, Cutting’s accordions perfectly underpin Simpson’s liquid guitar and banjo lead lines and Kerr’s robust fiddle riffs. The set’s excellent originals are headed by a delicate Simpson-penned waltz that blends the unlikely subject matter of birdwatching and World War II tragedy.
Covers and originals overlap as seamlessly on The Spyglass & the Herringbone, although Oates’s sixth and most accomplished work to date has a more celebratory and upbeat feel. The album’s tone, established in a jaunty opening traditional ballad, is brilliantly maintained in a rollicking weaving mill song propelled by funky guitar and wooden flute riffs. Morris dance tunes provide a lively pulse for a classic chorus-styled song prompted by Padstow May Day festivities and a longcherished traditional tale concerning the devil and a farmer’s wife. Hand-clapping combined with drums and vocal refrains proves a congenial conveyance for a Cornish standard about robbers.
Oates’s love of her adopted West Country resurfaces in A Cornish Young Man. The artist’s previously displayed penchant for pop covers continues with a strings-suffused reading of Can’t Be Sure, the Sundays’ droll late-1980s jibe at the vagaries of English weather. In two ballads of Irish origin, and in a beautiful schottische set to words, Oates tackles more poignant subject matter with requisite sensitivity, proving herself a singer, arranger and collaborator for all seasons.
The Spyglass & the Herringbone Jackie Oates ECC/Planet
Murmurs Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr Topic/Planet