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Album review: Simpson/Cutting/Kerr “Murmurs” (FRUK)

May 8, 2015

Simpson Cutting Kerr - MurmursThe names of Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr will be familiar to many as three of our finest musicians, singers and writers who are all acknowledged virtuosos in their own right. They’ve been touring together quietly but consistently over the last six months and recently headed into the studio to record some of the music they’ve been playing out for their new album Murmurs.

The inspiration for ‘Dark Swift and Bright Swallow’ came to Martin as he was walking on Slapton Sands and the nearby nature reserve at Slapton Ley in Devon, where he saw his first swallow of the year. His reverie was tempered by thoughts of “war and cruelty” – in 1944 Slapton Sands had witnessed rehearsals for the D-Day landings, an exercise which went horribly wrong – but the composition which arose from his inspiration is a slow, thoughtful piece, interwoven with Andy’s diatonic accordion and Nancy’s fiddle. The lyrical theme is one of several on the album which marks it apart from many other contemporary folk records as it focuses on events happening either within living memory or in our present times.

That said, the following ‘Richmond Cotillion’ is an arrangement by the trio of a very traditional song which Martin first heard on Mike Seeger’s 1962 album Old TIme Country Music. Popular in the 18th century, cotillions were social dances, a courtly version of the English country dance although, as Martin remarks in the sleeve notes, “I think this version is slightly less polite”. Indeed, it’s quite a raucous instrumental take on an old standard with some distinctly bluegrass flavours evident in Nancy’s joyous fiddle playing.

Lead single ‘Dark Honey’ brings us bang up to date with Nancy’s song about the bees. Much concern has been voiced in the media and elsewhere about the existential crisis currently being suffered by bee colonies around the world, yet Nancy experienced the paradox of a summer in which her inner-city garden attracted numerous bee swarms. The second piece in the inspirational jigsaw fell into place when she heard that urban bees often now produce a dark honey as a result of including the contents of discarded cola cans in their collection of sweet deposits, to make up for the increasing scarcity of more naturally-occurring nectar sources. As Nancy says, this brings an interesting nuance to the word “bittersweet” and there is a corresponding combination of sounds in the song, from Martin’s buzzing, edgy banjo to Andy’s distantly droning accordion lines while Nancy’s syncopated fiddle ties it all together to make one of the album’s highlights.

The more downtempo ‘Fair Rosamund’ returns to a traditional source which Martin learned from Hedy West’s 1965 album Old Times and Hard Times. There are some deeply unsettling aspects to the original lyric which are reflected in the bleakly sombre mood set by Andy’s accordion over which Martin and Nancy add some atmospheric guitar and fiddle while Martin’s singing vividly captures this dark moment in history.

‘Gather the Owls/Train on the Island’ lifts the mood with its combination of two different instrumental compositions separated by both time and location into a seamless whole. ‘Gather The Owls’ was co-written by Emily Askew, Rachel Newton and Hannah James during last year’s Elizabethan Session at Hatfield House, whose other contributors also included Martin and Nancy. The song title is a reference to the coffee mugs, which had moulded owls in their design. Martin originally learned the tune ‘Train on the Island’ as ‘June Apple’, the definitive version of which was played by Wade Ward, a banjo and fiddle player from Virginia. The two tunes sit together incredibly well, Martin and Nancy’s riffing is astonishingly tight and it’s a definite highlight of the record.

The inspiration for ‘Toy Soldiers’ came to Martin while travelling along the Fosse Way, that former western frontier of occupied Roman territory in first century Britain. The pheasant was among the many things introduced to these isles during the centuries of Roman rule – “brought for sport this jewelled bird” – and Martin’s lyric ponders the fate of this noble bird, now often seen by many gamekeepers as little more than vermin while, at the same time, state-funded subsidies for grouse moors continue to increase. Despite the understated arrangement – graceful flurries of fiddle whirl and wheel like startled birds around the steady beat of the guitar – this is clearly a complex subject which Martin feels strongly about and, I have to say, I empathise with him.

‘The Cruel Mother’ is a well-known murder ballad familiar in many different versions and can be found in the collections of both Child and Roud. The trio have arranged it here to a 5/4 tempo which drives the melody along, adding a new urgency to the poignant ballad. Andy’s accordion weaves like the mist through the trees while Nancy’s fiddle cuts through the mix to counterpoint her clear, heartfelt vocals.

The compositional credits for the instrumental ‘Seven Years’ are all Andy’s; it’s a tune he wrote some time ago which hadn’t, until now, found a suitable context. Martin and Nancy bring a lightness of touch to the arrangement which is possessed of a flowing gracefulness and makes for a gently introspective bridge between ‘The Cruel Mother’ and ‘The Plains of Waterloo’. Despite its clear reference to the most famous battle of the Napoleonic war, this latter tune seems to have been equally well known in Canada, although various recordings have also been made by Shirley and Dolly Collins, The High Level Ranters, Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts, as well as Martin Carthy. However, June Tabor’s unaccompanied 1976 version has been an ongoing inspiration to Martin who, having recorded three previous instrumentals, brought it to the trio for what may well prove to be one of its definitive arrangements. Accompanying himself on bottleneck guitar with Andy’s accordion like distant flags on the battlefield before being joined by Nancy’s harmonic fiddle, this beautifully sparse arrangement highlights the melody’s complex major/minor key modulations.

The 18th century Northumbrian hornpipe, ‘Lads of Alnwick’, is a perennial favourite of many folkies and while the trio have wisely retained its trademark 3/2 tempo, its arrangement was inspired by Nancy’s transposing it into the key of A. The result of this seemingly innocuous change was that, as she says, “it seemed to morph into more of a fiddle tune”. Martin adds a nimble banjo part while Andy takes up a one-row melodeon to good effect on this likeable foot-tapper.

We return to the 21st century with ‘Not Even the Ground/Two Ladies’, which Nancy started writing as a love song but which turned into a protest song of sorts about fracking (hydraulic fracturing); the latest manifestation of the twisted entitlement that is a hallmark of capitalism in which “there’s nothing on earth men won’t plunder / Not even the ground under true lovers’ feet”. Andy came up with his contribution, ‘Two Ladies’, after listening to Nancy’s demo and the combination is seamless. This is a fabulous example of the voice of dissent finding a home in folk music, as it has done for centuries, and the power of the message is enhanced a hundredfold by the gentle waltz time arrangement. For me, this song is the highlight of the entire album.

‘Some Old Salty’ rounds out the record in fine style with Martin taking centre stage with a combination of sinuously funky fingerstyle playing and a vocal delivery that many an old-school rocker would envy. Written by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight, it’s an affectionate nod to the 1960s folk revival which is nevertheless as relevant today as ever. Martin and Nancy’s harmonies, as well as their casually virtuoso trading of guitar and fiddle riffs, are a treat while Andy’s accordion is understated yet intuitively appropriate.

We’re not even halfway through the year but we’ve already seen a number of astonishingly high quality records from many quarters; even so, Murmurs stands head and shoulders against much of this extraordinarily stiff competition. By anybody’s standards it’s a top-notch album by three of our best musicians and, if there’s any justice in this world, will soon find its way into the collections of all self-respecting fans of folk music.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (08 May 2015)

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