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Album review: Emily Portman “Coracle”

June 10, 2015

There’s no doubt that Emily Portman has, with a little help from her friends, created and curated a dazzling display of writing and musicianship, but the real success of Coracle lies in the balancing of many seemingly disparate aspects to create an intensely luminous collection of songs whose articulate lyrics, virtuoso performances and intricate arrangements never overshadow the very real humanity which is at the heart of it all.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Emily Portman "Coracle" albumCoracle is the fourth solo album by Emily Portman, one of the UK folk scene’s leading lights, and while it’s entirely self-penned and self-released, it also showcases her talent for collaborative working to great effect. Among the stellar lineup of guest musicians are her bandmates Rachel Newton and Lucy Farrell (The Emily Portman Trio, Furrow Collective), Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead), M.G. Boulter (Lucky Strikes), Rob Harbron (Leveret), percussionist Toby Kearney, singer/musician Neil McSweeney, vocal arranger MaJiKer and sound designer Will Schrimshaw. Produced and engineered by Andy Bell in a variety of locations, including a barn in Wales and an octagonal church as well more conventional studio locations, the result is a record which exceeds all and any expectations. Lyrically, Emily continues her exploration of traditional folk tales and ballads, interwoven with her personal reflections on motherhood and bereavement, both of which have figured prominently in her own life.

The first song, ‘Darkening Bell’, is one of the album’s highlights, its subject matter a visit made by Emily and some friends to the ancient Gop Caves in North Wales. On the top of the hill in which the caves are located is Gop Cairn, which is thought to have been constructed some 6,000 years ago – it’s also rumoured to be either Boudica’s grave, or the burial place of a Roman general – while the caves themselves have been said to lead into underground tunnels used by the Celtic warriors of the local Tegeingl tribe to mount guerrilla attacks on the invading Roman army in the 1st century AD. It’s no surprise, then, that Emily’s lyric reflects the site’s richly inspirational past with a highly evocative word picture of one of its possible pasts. A distant banjo and slow, stately percussion sparkle like ancient gold behind the smoky strings of Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton (Emily’s bandmates in her trio) before the tempo quickens to an intense and atmospheric conclusion.

(‘Darkening Bell’ video made by Marry Waterson)

The theme of motherhood is to the fore in the introspective ‘Night Jar’ and it finds Emily musing on relationships and memories, her voice high in the mix over the gentle boom of a double bass and a kick drum like a heartbeat, before double time percussion and lush harmony vocals sweep the listener into the comforting arms of a harp for the song’s coda.

‘Brink of June’ finds Emily recalling what she describes as “the long wait for my daughter, who was due in May and born in June” in a song inspired by Waterson:Carthy’s arrangement of the traditional ‘May Song’ (Roud 305). The month of May has been symbolic to many people down through the ages as the time of transition from Spring into Summer, and is marked by numerous festivities and celebrations with their ancient origins lost to history. It’s appropriate, therefore, that Emily has opted for a very “trad folk” feel to the arrangement, despite its comparatively modern instrumentation of piano, banjo and strings. Neil McSweeney’s mellifluous vocals are the perfect foil to Emily’s sweet, high voice, poised perfectly above some intricate percussion fills – and one of my favourite lyrics of the record: “We two shall part and meet for the first time”.

‘Borrowed and Blue’ is Emily’s response to the ‘Ballad of The Cruel Mother’, the well-known murder ballad documented in Child 20. The original is something of a staple in folk circles (eg. Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting & Nancy Kerr’s recent arrangement of it on their latest album Murmurs). Emily’s lyrics take the viewpoint of the mother, imagining how it must have felt to have found herself “turned from glade to factory”, only to be abandoned to raise these unwanted sons alone. From this perspective it becomes possible to empathise, not only with the “cruel mother” of the original, but also with all single mothers, particularly those who even, especially, today are struggling with the ever-tightening stranglehold of neoliberal economic austerity and the tabloids’ demonisation of anyone and everyone who finds themselves falling through the ever-widening cracks of this fictitious “Big Society” we inhabit. Strong stuff – made more chilling with the contributions of Will Schrimshaw’s electronics – and another highlight.

In an interview for her PledgeMusic fundraiser, Emily explained the record’s title thus:

“[A] coracle is a round boat made of animal skins and willow, which reminds me a little of a nest, or babies crib, and in some prehistoric burial sites, it was discovered that people were buried under their coracles. So it seemed like a fitting name for an album that dives into these knotty themes of birth and death.”

So it is that the lyrics of the record’s title track ‘Coracle’ are, in a sense, ambiguous, allowing Emily to develop those twin themes: successive listens suggest that it may allude to a coracle functioning as either cradle or coffin. However the listener chooses to interpret it, there’s no doubt that the lyrics help make ‘Coracle’ a particular highlight of the album. Musically, it’s a slow, thoughtful arrangement of sparse strings and reeds which paints a vivid mental sound picture of grey morning mists over the quietly lapping waters of the wetlands, the fens and marshes that are such a distinctive feature of the landscapes of this sceptred isle.

‘Eye of Tree’ continues Emily’s exploration of folk traditions, being partly inspired by a line from ‘Tam Lin’ (Child 39) – “eye of tree and heart of clay” – and partly by English novelist and journalist Angela Carter’s short story The Erl-King. Depending on which source you believe, the Erl-King was the malevolent king of the fairies in Danish and German folklore; or it may refer to the Herla king from medieval English folklore, the leader of the Wild Hunt. Whichever you prefer, he was definitely bad news, although Emily’s lyric is more inspired by Angela Carter’s recentring (in which a female protagonist encounters and eventually wins out against a male forest spirit) than by Goethe’s poetry. The musical arrangement is a dramatic blend of the quite abstract sounds that acoustic instruments can produce, embellished with Will Schrimshaw’s mysterious electronics, over which the almost nursery rhyme vocals and harmonies skip and hop like a precocious Red Riding Hood, who needs no passing woodcutter for her salvation, in this eerily impressionistic piece.

An Estonian fairy story is at the heart of ‘Dotterine’: it’s a retelling of The Child who came from an Egg, which was collected by the Scots poet Andrew Lang in his Violet Fairy Book of 1901. As Lang’s title suggests, it’s about a child born miraculously from a bird’s egg in a basket given to a lonely queen by an old woman. Although the child – Dotterine – grows up to a lead an eventful life, Emily’s lyric focuses on her birth, while the arrangement is a gorgeous a capella lullaby which creates a soothing interlude.

The peaceful mood is maintained in the idiosyncratic Seed Stitch, the lyrics of which are part knitting pattern and part instructions for living life. Propelled by a combination of pizzicato strings and what sounds like somebody rustling a bag of sweets, its air of genteel industriousness is sweetened by Emily’s quietly happy delivery and some well-placed electric piano chords.

‘A Grief’ is an altogether more sombre affair although Emily handles this song about bereavement with a tenderness that is brittle yet warm. The sparsest of arrangements – a scattering of harp notes, strings and piano – generates a sense of stillness, of love and loss which is both intimate and distant. The sheer depth of feeling in this heartbreakingly beautiful, elegiac piece is almost too much to witness, although anyone who’s lost someone dear to them will surely recognise, and empathise with, the retelling of the emotions experienced in the aftermath of such a significant occurrence.

The lyrics for ‘High Tide’ were written by the poet Eleanor Rees and her description of Emily’s arrangement as “lush and vivid” is impossible to fault. A steady rhythmic base of pizzicato strings builds gradually to a crashing climax before a gently swaying a capella coda releases the pressure. Throughout the composition, Lucy Farrell’s musical saw and Neil McSweeney’s backing vocals contribute to the sense of uncertainty and insecurity described in the lyrics.

The album closes with ‘Hollow Feather’, a retelling of the traditional folktale The Hunchback and The Swan,from Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children by Duncan Williamson, the Scottish storyteller, singer and member of the Scottish Traveller community. As with many fairytales, it makes an important moral point (in this instance, about not judging disabled people by their appearance) and combines this with a tale of magical shapeshifting which has similarities to “The Ugly Duckling” fable and, perhaps also, distant echoes of Welsh mythology (Blodeuwedd’s story in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi). Sung largely unaccompanied by Emily with additional vocals by MaJiKer, who also adds some almost ambient, tinkling bells, it brings the record to a natural conclusion – although, if you’re listening to it on looped playback, it leads almost seamlessly back into the first track ‘Darkening Bell’, so perhaps ‘natural break’ might be a more appropriate term!

There’s no doubt that Emily Portman has, with a little help from her friends, created and curated a dazzling display of writing and musicianship, but the real success of Coracle lies in the balancing of many seemingly disparate aspects to create an intensely luminous collection of songs whose articulate lyrics, virtuoso performances and intricate arrangements never overshadow the very real humanity which is at the heart of it all.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (10 June 2015)

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