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Album review: Kate in the Kettle “Swimmings Of The Head” (FRUK)

November 26, 2014

Kate in the Kettle 300x269For many musicians, working with others is an essential and enjoyable part of the unwritten job description; for fiddle player and singer Kate Young, however, collaborating with others *is* the job description. Since 2013’s ‘Laylam’ album with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Lucy Farrell, she has worked extensively with the international music collective Ethno In Transit as well as Moulettes, the long-established UK indie folk band. Now, under the name of Kate in the Kettle, she has crowd-funded and released her own project (and first solo album) ‘Swimmings Of The Head’, another collaborative work in which she continues to explore her fascination with music from around the world.

Deftly sidestepping the customary showcase approach of many first solo albums and its inevitable disappointing outcome – a mish-mash of styles with little substance – Kate has produced a work which is as impressively mature and sophisticated as it is eclectic and cohesive. At its core, Kate in the Kettle is a collaborative project with låt-mandola player Marit Fält (Norway/Sweden) which also features musicians from Spain, Estonia and Italy. Consequently, the influences apparent on ‘Swimmings Of The Head’ are global in scope and include traditional and contemporary material, but Kate is a skilled enough arranger to be able to draw on them without appropriation.

The opening ‘Fairy Fiddler/Såb Jon’s Polska’, the title and first part of which is derived from the Victorian feminist Nora Hopper’s poem, alternates between a very traditional sounding composition and a highly contemporary fusion of Kate’s distinctive fiddle playing, Victor Solana’s tabla and Marit Fält’s låt-mandola. Over all of this float Kate’s wordless harmonies – apparently a Swedish vocal technique known colloquially as ‘cow-calling’ – demonstrating not only her own remarkable range but also how perfectly musical styles from very different cultures can blend.

It’s followed by ‘Mammoth’, a lengthy instrumental arrangement of four different songs which include a cover of ‘Kissed Her Under the Coverlet’ (a traditional Northumbrian tune) throughout which Victor’s tabla becomes more prominent as the tune flows into the whirl of the more Indian-influenced ‘Holi’, before moving into the closing ‘Tandoori Teuchter’ (one of Kate’s compositions in a Scottish dance style).

The driving riff of ‘Green & Gold’ showcases the percussive side of Kate’s playing and her relaxed, confident singing style. As you might expect from a song which was inspired by Slovenian figs, a distinctly central European influence pervades this song. Marit’s låt-mandola and Daniel Moser’s bass clarinet fit surprisingly well with the overall feel of the piece which at times feels like it’s going to tip into an out-and-out klezmer dance tune.

For me, ‘Paper Rose’ is one of the album’s highlights. Derived from Erik Satie’s ‘Trois Gnossiennes No.1’, the haunting melody of which is sung wordlessly by a multitracked Kate, it evokes images of clouds passing across the sun on a crisp autumnal day.

The lengthy ‘Salmon’ is another merger of two tunes, ‘Polska After Taklax’ and ‘Poolachrie’, that Kate and Marit had been enjoying playing and which the two decided fitted well enough together to make the one piece. Opening with the ambient sounds of birdsong and what sounds like an mbira, its dramatic chords give way to a traditionally-sounding folk piece with Kate’s wordless vocals and rapidfire fiddle dancing with Marit’s låt-mandola. The sense of drama is heightened with the introduction of Victor’s tabla and Marti Tärn’s loping bass guitar in the stormy ‘Poolachrie’, before the quietly ebbing coda.

‘Lullaby’ is another song in two parts, the first derives its lyric from ‘Lullaby Of An Infant Chief’, written by Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist and poet; while the second part, ‘Slängpolska’, is a folk dance of Swedish origin. Although ‘Lullaby Of An Infant Chief’ has previously been set to music by the pianist and composer Jack Gibbons, the arrangement here is by Kate. It begins with a capella singing which moves from a wordless melody into Kate’s rendition of the Scott verse, underpinned by her pizzicato playing before Marit’s låt-mandola joins in. This is a lovely, gentle passage which reflects the song’s title, drawing the listener into a state of reverie, to be roused by the increasing whirl of the slängpolska, punctuated by Victor’s tabla and Marti’s bass beneath Kate’s vocals.

‘Push & Spark’ is a short composition of Kate’s in a more traditional style which displays her vocal range and fiddle playing to good effect while Marit and Victor provide a restrained, rhythmic accompaniment before its major key ending in a hypnotic hum of singing bowls.

The album closes with ‘Grow Down’: Marit’s låt-mandola playing really shines on this one while the influence of Indian music can be heard in Kate’s vocals and her playing. Along with Victor’s percussion, this makes an excellent showcase of Kate in the Kettle’s ensemble playing.

‘Swimmings Of The Head’ is a fascinating album which combines a number of musical influences from around the world with Kate’s own Scottish heritage. Its success lies in the musicans’ understanding that there are often more similarities than differences between traditions and it’s this which has enabled Kate and her collaborators to produce one of the most highly listenable and finely-balanced experimental albums of the year.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (26 November 2014)

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