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Album review: Kirsty Law “Shift” (FRUK)

December 18, 2014

Kirsty Law - ShiftThe wellspring of history of the Borders between southern Scotland and northern England is something from which singer and songwriter Kirsty Law draws much of her inspiration and with which she has combined her own perceptions and understanding to create her new album Shift. Accompanied by Rona Wilkie (fiddles) and Marit Fält (låt-mandola, cittern) with guest appearances by Conrad Molleson (double bass), David Milligan (Rhodes piano) and Drew Wright (vocals), Shift is a deeply atmospheric and highly evocative collection of self-penned songs and rearrangements of traditional tunes and poems throughout which Kirsty’s warm, full-throated vocals weave and soar.

The opening ‘The Wild Lass/The Twa Magicians’, a combination of two songs, offers the ideal starting point for Kirsty’s musical vision as she jumps straight in with an unaccompanied rendition of a poem by the Scottish poet Marion Angus. Honouring Marion’s style of writing, Kirsty initially sings ‘The Wild Lass’ in the vernacular Braid Scots to her own tune before being joined in turn by Marit Fält and Rona Wilkie as the tempo increases and the piece moves, via Kirsty’s partly-sung, partly-spoken delivery, into an assured reworking of the traditional Child Ballad ‘The Twa Magicians’, its tune (derived from the singing of A. L. Lloyd) making a fitting setting for this misty, mythical tale of shape-shifting.

‘Riddles’ is, as Kirsty points out in the sleeve notes, “a patchwork of rhythms” based on ‘Sandy Candy’, a book of childrens songs and poems collected from all over Scotland by William and Norah Montgomery. Guest vocals are provided by Drew Wright to create a song which slips and slides across timbres and melodies; the whole is vaguely reminiscent of some of Pentangle’s early work, not least as a result of Conrad Molleson’s springy double bass which appears to be channelling some of Danny Thompson’s jazzier moments. It’s a song which, on first hearing, may pass the listener by but which works its way into your ears before finally revealing itself as an unexpected highlight of the album.

Named for a medieval friary in Midlothian, which included a hospital within its boundaries, ‘Soutra Aisle’ is a mournful and slowly-developing song with David Milligan’s Rhodes piano like a distant thundercloud over Conrad’s restrained double bass and Marit’s chiming låt-mandola. Rona’s fiddle joins at the song’s bridge as Kirsty imagines the sad tale of one of the former patients, a pregnant young woman compelled to visit Soutra Aisle to undergo an enforced abortion.

The lyrics for ‘O Are Ya Sleepin Maggie?’ are derived from a poem by the Scottish Weaver Poet Robert Tannahill and are set to Kirsty’s own arrangement. Rona’s fiddle blows like the north wind and Marit’s låt-mandola whirls like the fallen leaves in a winter storm as Kirsty’s voice relates Tannahill’s tale of the secret love of a young couple.

Written in collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library’s Tessa Ransford (and partly in response to her poem Gigue), ‘Wee Song’ is exactly that. Featuring Kirsty’s unaccompanied singing it brings us bang up to date with its description of a busy city filled with the sounds of buses passing, laughter and modern life.

‘Barefit Lasses’ takes as its starting point a field recording by Hamish Henderson of two Leith fishermen describing ‘Auld Reekie’s Cries’ with Kirsty adding her own verses which paint word pictures of real women for whom song has been a fundamental part of their lives. The interplay between Rona and Marit is strikingly empathic here with David’s keyboards and Conrad’s double bass exercising admirable restraint.

Sir Walter Scott’s collection of ancient Scottish border ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, provides the inspiration for ‘Lament Of The Border Widow’, using a tune which Kirsty learned from the English folk singer Sandra Kerr and which, despite Kirsty’s self-deprecating description of playing “clunky piano”, is an extremely atmospheric and haunting evocation of an old tale which still resonates today.

Shepherding is one of the oldest occupations of humankind and provides Kirsty with the unifying subject matter for two songs which sit comfortably together despite their quite different musical arrangements. Inspired by her childhood in the Borders, ‘Hymn For A Shepherd’ is Kirsty’s self-penned tribute to shepherds of today who still face great hardships in their lives. The tune is based on the traditional Time Wears Awa’ and Kirsty’s emotive unaccompanied performance is an almost unbearably heart-rending musing on the price we pay for modernity. The Galloway shepherd Thomas Murray told his life story through poetry and Kirsty’s inspiration for ‘The Faithful Shepherdess’ is drawn from Murray’s recollection of meeting a young woman who had become a shepherd at a time when it has become much harder to make a living from it. Musically, it occupies an interesting space somewhere between a traditional jig and a more contemporary take on folk-rock with Kirsty’s multitracked harmonies adding a bittersweet flavour.

‘The Twa Sisters’ is a traditional song which Kirsty learned from Betsy Whyte, who was born into a Scottish traveller family in 1919 and brought up in the age-old tradition of the ‘mist people’; an itinerant way of life which, in its way, shares certain similarities with the almost nomadic lives of the shepherds of the two previous songs. Kirsty’s unaccompanied singing adds its own sense of melancholy to this introspective tune, supported only by Conrad’s bowed double bass until the song’s form shifts towards its end when Rona and Marit step forward to segue the arrangement into ‘Howling At The Moon’. Written “for anyone that has used their creative voice to stand up for a cause they believe in”, the sense of brooding of ‘The Twa Sisters’ gives way to a more determined outlook. Rona’s fiddles are especially expressive, playing against Marit’s percussive chords.

The album closes with the hypnotic ‘Ballad’, based on a poem by David Harsent (the English poet and scriptwriter) which in turn was inspired by his reading of a book of Border Ballads. Marit’s insistent arpeggios drive the song onwards towards its uptempo conclusion with the fiddle drones and double bass providing rhythmic punctuation.

With Shift, Kirsty Law has recorded an album which offers a rich and often heady brew of traditional and modern songs and sounds which retains a strong sense of its own identity within the traditions of music rooted in the Borders between southern Scotland and northern England. It draws the listener into a landscape of ruined castles and abbeys, of remote roads and pathways running along and across the Border, of forests, mountains and rivers which together comprise one of the last truly liminal spaces left in modern day, mainland Britain and offers a welcome and contemporary insight into the region’s cultural heritage.


Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (18 December 2014)


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