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Album review: The Willows “Amidst Fiery Skies” (FRUK)

October 17, 2014

The Willows 'Amidst Fiery Skies'Steeped in the UK folk tradition but with a clear love of Americana, Amidst Fiery Skies, the second record by Cambridge-based quintet The Willows builds on the groundwork of ideas and sounds that underpinned last year’s debut Beneath Our Humble Soil to come up with an album which effortlessly holds its own against some very stiff competition from the current crop of contemporary UK folk musicians.

The lyrically complex midtempo Red Sands opens the album, its interwoven themes tell of such diverse subjects as Welsh great grandparents, of those subject to forced eviction and cherished memories of childhood holidays. The bittersweet harmonies of Jade Rhiannon and Prue Ward reflect this changing personal landscape as Prue’s achingly lovely violin soars above Ben Savage’s guitar.

Roseville Fair pushes the idea of folk music as an oral tradition to its limits with a cover of Chris Wood and Andy Cutting’s cover of Bill Staines’ original. This filtering of two quite different versions results in something which, while being close to the original in spirit, allows the band to add their own ingredients. In this case, the result is an interesting mixture which owes as much to the UK folk revival as it does to 1970s Americana without being a pale copy of either. Cliff Ward’s banjo shines through while the full range of vocal harmonies adds a catchiness which could well find a niche on drivetime radio.

Part ghost story and part folk-rock jig, Johnny Robson tells a sad tale of lost love and tragic partings but the combination of Ben Nicholls’ double bass and Evan Carson’s bodhran and percussion keep things moving. Our Road is a slower, more introspective number with its roots firmly in contemporary UK folk; Jade’s voice sits well in the mix and Prue’s violin perfectly matches the thoughtful tone and tops off what is one of the album’s highlights.

The nineteenth century Irish ballad Maid of Culmore is here given a treatment which is a world away from the other version with which I’m familiar (Cara Dillon’s bare-bones arrangement from 2001), retaining the sense of space while adding a welcome richness of timbre. Guest Debs Spanton adds a lush, dark double bass to the close interplay between acoustic guitar and violin.

Cliff Ward takes the lead vocal spot on Shores, a chugging banjo-driven song which tells the story of Irish immigrants to America to work on the building of the Central Pacific Railroad during the nineteenth century. There’s a definite bluegrass influence at play here but the combination of the song’s lyrics and Jade and Prue’s harmonies add a nice touch of Appalachian roots. Those roots are further explored in Goodnight Loving Trail, another cover of a cover, in this case Sara Grey’s take on Utah Phillips’ original tale of an old cowboy on the Goodnight–Loving Trail, which was used in the cattle drives of the late 1860s between Texas and Wyoming. The Willows’ version retains the old-time feel, updating it just enough for contemporary sensibilities with Ben’s sinewy double bass and Prue’s quicksilver fiddle conjuring up the ghosts of the cattlemen who trailblazed this unforgiving and politically controversial route.

The flowing 6/8 tempo of Daughter shows off a more traditional-sounding jig feel which foregrounds the band’s ability to come up with some very tight ensemble playing, spurred on by Evan’s punchy bodhran rhythms.

Inspired by a trip to Robin Hood’s Bay, The Visitor relates the heroic story of a lifeboat rescue in the harsh winter storms of 1881. The arrangement is a successful blend of styles; although firmly grounded in UK folk traditions the chorus nods to the band’s evident love of Americana. This is a heady mix and I can imagine it being quite a show-stopper in a live setting. Staying on this side of the Atlantic, Outward Bound is an interpretation of the words of the traditional The Faithfull Sailor Boy set to a new melody. The sentiments of the original, a sad tale of a young woman receiving the news that her sweetheart has been lost at sea, are preserved in a tender ballad featuring emotional and emotive contributions from Jade and Prue.

Closing track Wave picks up the tempo but retains the lyrical introspection; Evan’s drums lead the way while Cliff’s banjo and Ben’s guitar mesh together to give Jade’s voice and Prue’s violin the space to shine in this musing on the wish to be, as the sleeve notes say, ‘isolated in a moment just a little longer’.

All in all, Amidst Fiery Skies is a very accomplished and confident sounding album which suggests that the rise to prominence of The Willows is richly deserved and it points to a bright future for the band.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (17 October 2014)

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