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Album review: The Foxglove Trio “These Gathered Branches” (FRUK)

April 16, 2015

The Foxglove Trio - These Gathered BranchesThese Gathered Branches is the debut album from the multi-instrumental The Foxglove Trio (Cathy Mason, Ffion Mair and Patrick Dean), whose knowledge of, and evident love for, traditional and contemporary folk songs from across the UK is reflected in their arrangements and performance throughout the record.

‘Mr And Mrs’ clearly sets out the sound of the band and gets the record off to a great start with one of its highlights. From the simplicity of its fingerstyle guitar opening, Ffion’s clear, high voice tells the story of a family reunion following a lengthy estrangement. The middle eight heralds a change in tempo with Patrick’s melodeon holding down the rhythm behind Cathy and Ffion’s harmonies.

The traditional lyrics of ‘The Jolly Pinder Of Wakefield’, derived from Child Ballad 124, allow the trio to showcase its very contemporary take on a familiar story centred on a meeting between Robin Hood and a pinder (a sort of medieval gamekeeper) in Wakefield. Patrick’s melodeon and Cathy’s cello provide the musical foundation for a fast arrangement over which Ffion’s rapidfire vocals perfectly convey the tension of the lyric.

‘Selar Hill’ relates the tale of the opposition of local residents and environmentalists to the establishment of an opencast coal mine at Selar Hill above Cwmgwrach (“the Valley of Witches” in English) in the Vale of Neath. Despite the protests – and the area having one of the highest incidences of asthma in Wales – the mining company won the fight. The song was written by Huw Pudner and Chris Hastings in the 1990s and benefits from the addition of some lines translated from R. Williams Parry’s poem Y Llwynog (“The Fox”). The arrangement is complex but flows well between passages; the three-part vocal harmonies are particularly striking.

Born in Hungerford in the 18th century, James Blackman Snook was the last man to be executed in England (at Boxmoor, near Hemel Hempstead) for highway robbery. Often known as Robert Snooks (thought to be a corruption of “Robber” Snook), the song ‘James Snooks’ – written by Hamish Currie – recounts his story. A dramatic arrangement showcases the interplay between Patrick’s melodeon and Cathy’s cello.

‘Colli Llanwddyn’ (“the loss of Llanwddyn”) is the first of two songs on the record sung entirely in Welsh. Once again the lyric tells of an environmental protest, this time in the 1880s in the village of Llanwddyn, in the Vyrnwy valley in Powys, which was drowned as part of the construction of an artifical lake, a reservoir designed to supply water to Liverpool. A local teacher tried unsuccessfully to mobilise a protest and petition to the Liverpool Corporation and the villagers were forced to relocate to two new settlements nearby. To this day, when the reservoir levels are low, walls and foundations of the original village can be seen and the two cello lines of the song paint a ghostly sound picture for Ffion’s haunting vocals.

The mood is lightened a little in ‘The Three Huntsmen’. The traditional lyrics have been arranged by the trio with a suitably jaunty jig complete with whistle and bodhran, and incorporating snippets from ‘Young Scottie’ (by Charlie Sherritt) and two traditional Welsh songs, ‘Ty a Gardd’ (“House and Garden”) and ‘Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech’ (“Men of Harlech”). In the sleeve notes, the trio point out that “Since we started performing it we’ve become aware that there are other versions with much ruder lyrics so we suspect this one is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ sanitised version for children”.

‘Stars And Bells’ combines the traditional ‘O How Lovely is the Evening’ and ‘Star, Star’ (by Glen Hansard), arranged by the trio, and in the process creates something which is much more than just the sum of its parts. Over a chiming guitar and a melodeon drone, Ffion, Cathy and Patrick sing the lyric as a round, circling closer until the voices are in sync. The bridge brings a contrast to a gentle, floating passage before the three-part round gradually returns. A pretty and elegant combination of songs and another highlight.

The lyric to ‘The Daughter Of Megan’ was written in the 18th century by the Shropshire-born poet John Dovaston and it has more recently been set to music by Kate Rusby on her 2003 album Underneath The Stars. The Foxglove Trio have created their own arrangement to a melody by Patrick which also incorporates Andy Cutting’s tune ‘To the Edges’. The lyric describes the barriers to love that existed as a direct result of the restrictive class sytem of the time but the trio have cleverly modified the last line to, as they say in the sleeve notes, “give our protagonist a glimmer of hope”. The arrangement retains a sense of the formality of 18th century social gatherings and the mood of wistful melancholia is gradually replaced with the more optimistic feel of some well-placed key changes and rather lovely harmony singing from Ffion and Cathy.

‘Lliw Gwyn Rhosyn Yr Haf’ (“The Summer of the White Rose”) is the second song sung in Welsh and, if memory serves, Cerys Matthews recently recorded a version on her album Hullabaloo. The lyrics here are by Richard Williams although the traditional melody has been retained. It’s a tale of unrequited love with a happy ending and the trio bring a bright and breezy arrangement to it with some impressively tight staccato riffing – a dyna ti’r gwir!

‘The Pit Boy’ was written by G.P. Codden as a recitation piece, based on an earlier poem by Thomas Wilson, a former miner, and was widely circulated after it was published as a broadside in support of “a Fund for the Relief of the Surviving Sufferers by the Explosion which occured at Warren Vale Colliery [near Barnsley], on the morning of December 20th, 1851”. The lyric is written from the point of view of a young miner telling his mother not to worry about him as he prepares for another shift. The trio sing it a capella in an arrangement which gains much of its emotional power from its directness and its respect for all those who’ve lost their lives in such dreadful accidents.

‘The Owlesbury Lads’ tells of a particular 19th century Swing Riot (an agricultural variant of Luddism) with its story of a group of farm labourers in Hampshire, their protest against the impact of machinery on their employment and the inevitable quashing of their dissent by the forces of the state. The arrangement retains the traditional lyrics in the chorus with the verse lyrics and melody added by Cathy and its no-nonsense, almost marching rhythm works well with the pared-down instrumentation of just melodeon and cello.

The album closes with the elegaic ‘Farewell To Fiunary’, a traditional melody arranged by the trio with lyrics by the 19th century Scottish writer Norman MacLeod and incorporating ‘Oor Pal Davy’ by John McCusker and Phil Cunningham. It’s a lovely rendition which manages to avoid sentimentality by virtue of its simplicity and openness; the three-part harmonies especially are quite beautiful.

Listening to These Gathered Branches, it’s hard to believe that it’s The Foxglove Trio’s debut album, such is its combined depth and breadth. The trio fully acknowledge their sources and inspirations and treat them with respect and sensitivity without becoming unduly reverential. Each of the musicians is highly accomplished in their own right and it’s clear they listen to each other and react to the sound ‘in the moment’, a rare skill which producer Mark Hutchinson has captured at its best. This is one of those albums which seems to appear, fully-formed, out of nowhere and its wholeness and maturity bodes well for the band’s future.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (16 April 2015)

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