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Album review: Sarah McQuaid “Walking Into White” (FRUK)

March 12, 2015

Sarah McQuaid - Walking Into White coverWalking Into White, is the fourth solo album by the Penzance-based singer/songwriter Sarah McQuaid. An accomplished musician who has never been afraid to take chances, Sarah has developed a highly distinctive playing style based on the use of the DADGAD open tuning and this has allowed her to soak up diverse influences from Irish traditional music to Appalachian folk, Elizabethan ballads to jazz, pop and many other styles. For this record, she enlisted the services of two producers (Jeremy Backofen and Adam Pierce) from outside the folk scene and with whom she’d never worked with them before. It’s a leap in the dark that could quite conceivably have gone horribly wrong but, for the most part, Sarah’s instincts have proved remarkably good. The result is a highly enjoyable record by a musician who, despite endless tours and recording sessions, still remains one of the UK’s best-known unknowns. However, I do have reservations about the production decision to use what the PR notes call “occasionally unorthodox recording methods (a mini-cassette recorder mounted on a microphone stand, for example)”, which does, from time to time throughout the album, result in noticeable amounts of tape hiss. Whether this adds or detracts from one’s listening experience is, of course, a highly subjective matter which will undoubtedly vary according to individual tastes.

The opening ‘Low Winter Sun’ showcases both Sarah’s musical eclecticism and the influence of her co-producers; Adam Pierce’s synth washes underpin guitar melodies which are drawn from church bell peals (specifically the Westminster Quarters and Plain Bob Doubles). Campanological influences aside, the song has its own rhythmic core which sits well with the lyrical subject matter of driving through the countryside with the wintry sun in your eyes.

‘Where The Wind Decides To Blow’ is the first of three songs on the album which were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books. The idea to write these songs came from Sarah’s having read aloud all twelve books to her two children as bedtime stories and the lyrical content of ‘Where The Wind Decides To Blow’ is derived from an incident in the fourth book, Winter Holiday, where what starts out as a fun idea suddenly goes a bit sideways. Tempered by Kivie Cahn-Lipman’s dreamy cello, there’s a sense of foreboding in Sarah’s playing which explodes into a full-on 1960s-ish rock arrangement in the middle eight with the arrival of Adam’s overdubbed one-man rhythm section (drums, bass and electric guitar).

It’s followed by ‘The Tide’, the second of the Swallows and Amazons influenced trilogy and which finds its inspiration in both Cool Club and Secret Water. As Sarah points out in her sleeve notes, the stories are something of a metaphor for life: if you get stuck in the mud when the tide goes out, all you can do is wait for it to rise again. Musically a little less raucous than ‘Where The Wind Decides To Blow’, Sarah’s exemplary playing is foregrounded over Rob King’s restrained piano and Adam’s skittery percussion, while Adele Schulz adds some ethereal harmony vocals to the refrains.

The instrumental ‘I Am Grateful For What I Have’ is a gentle, kaleidoscopic showcase for Sarah’s virtuoso playing; Dan Lippel’s classical guitar adds some nice tonal variation, while Kivie’s understated cello drone grounds the piece and adds depth. It sets the scene for the curiously lo-fi a capella ‘Sweetness And Pain I’, the first of an almost accidental trilogy in that, after recording the whole piece, Sarah decided that it might work better split into three parts “to be scattered amongst the other tracks as a sort of interlude and recurring theme”.

The album’s title track ‘Walking Into White’ resumes and concludes Sarah’s Swallows and Amazons trilogy, this time based on the book Swallowdale. Again offering a lyrical metaphor for one of life’s more trying experiences – the sense of being lost in a thick fog with no idea of which way to go – it benefits from a clean and simple arrangement of just Sarah (guitar and vocals) around which the trumpet of Gareth Flowers weaves and billows although, like the preceding ‘Sweetness And Pain I’, the recording has a definite lo-fi feel about it which manifests itself in a particularly high level of tape hiss, at least to my ears.

‘Jackdaws Rising’ is a joint composition which derives from an instrumental tune called ’13 Moons’, written by Sarah’s friends Pete Coleman and Clare Hines of the band Brocc. Sarah felt that it would work well as a three-part round (the second and third parts are here sung by Adele Schulz and Martin Stansbury), while co-producer Adam adds a 5/4 percussion part to this rousing 4/4 tune. Additional percussion in the form of stomps and handclaps is provided by the ensemble (including the other co-producer, Jeremy Backofen). A definite highlight and one which may well cause you to, um, shake a tailfeather!

Dedicated to Sarah’s son Eli, ‘Yellowstone’ has an almost flamenco feel, thanks in part to Dan’s classical guitar flourishes. Adam adds some restrained cajon beats and the result is a soothing lullaby which will undoubtedly help to calm any ten-year old who has been kept awake by the vagaries of the big bad world outside. By contrast, ‘The Silver Lining’ is a much livelier affair, partly as a result of its very poppy song structure and partly because of Adam’s driving, rocky drums. Jeremy’s bass helps to keep things on an even keel while the vocal harmonies and Gareth’s muted trumpet add to what is a real radio-friendly highlight of the album.

Bookended by the second and third parts of the lo-fi ‘Sweetness And Pain’ a capella trilogy, ‘Leave It For Another Day’, co-written with Gerry O’Beirne (who produced her first three albums) foregrounds Sarah’s intricate playing, which is well suited to a song which has the 1960s folk revival at its heart, despite her fragile, delicate vocals being buried in the mix. Adam’s treated electric guitar adds some interesting, if upfront, textures to the sound which, once again features the aforementioned “unorthodox recording methods”.

‘Canticle Of The Sun’, possibly better known to many as the hymn ‘All Creatures Of Our God And King’, is an unusual choice of material but the organ drones (by Martin and Adam) are arranged in a way that allows Sarah’s gorgeous multitracked harmonies to shine through. Her playing, too, is a joy to hear and the feel of church bell ringing pervades the tune to good effect. The album closes with Sarah’s solo (voice and guitar), lo-fi cover of the Ewan MacColl song ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. As she says in her sleeve notes, “it’s one of the most perfect love songs ever written” and her performance is a correspondingly tender way to round out the record.

As frustrating as it must surely be that a greater public recognition has so far eluded her, Sarah McQuaid has clearly held true to her own musical vision and it’s to be hoped that Walking Into White is the album which will bring her the wider commercial success she so richly deserves.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (12 March 2015)

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Edited to add, 12 March 2015: I’ve mentioned before (here and here) about how gratifying it is to receive feedback on my reviews from the artists themselves, so I was very happy to see Sarah’s tweet to me after this review went live today. Thank you, Sarah!

Screengrab of Sarah's tweet after my review went live

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