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Album review: Niamh Boadle “Maid On The Shore”

June 17, 2015

Maid on the Shore is an impressively accomplished display of Niamh Boadle’s skills as a musician, writer, singer and arranger and makes the ideal starting point for anyone interested in finding out why she’s one of folk music’s rising stars.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Niamh Boadle's 'Maid on the Shore' recordMaid On The Shore, the second solo album by Lancashire-born Niamh Boadle, showcases her undoubted talents as a multi-instrumentalist and singer across a diverse range of material, from traditional folk standards to her own self-penned compositions, in a variety of styles, while still maintaining a continuity of her sound.

The record opens with ‘Forget-Me-Not’, a self-penned composition and a song which fairly leaps out of the speakers at you. Its rhythmic, plucked-and-strummed fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing is reminsicent of John Martyn at his best, combining elements of jazz and folk, while Niamh’s singing is clear and tuneful, bringing a coolly assured counterpoint to the urgency of her playing; her multitracked harmonies on the chorus are especially ear-catching. The lyric was inspired by an 1881 newspaper report from the Preston Chronicle, telling an age-old story: girl (Annie Ratcliffe) meets boy (John Aspinall Simpson), girl’s father recognises boy as a “wastrel” and bans girl from seeing boy – unsuccessfully, of course – with inevitably tragic consequences. A wonderfully self-contained song and one of the album’s highlights.

It’s followed by the traditional ‘Dark Inishowen’ (Roud 10387), the first of the record’s three a capella renditions which Niamh learned from the singing of Mary Dillon. As Niamh says in her sleeve notes, “It’s a place name-dropper, centring on a young man searching for love”. Nevertheless, there’s a depth and subtlety to the lyric which, although at its core is a simple tale of a young man and his quest for true love, is so densely packed with place names and locations that it takes a couple of listens to fully grasp its completeness.

‘Green Bushes’ (Roud 1040) follows on almost seamlessly, Niamh’s vocal high in the mix over a sparse, rolling fingerstyle acoustic guitar before being joined by her overdubbed fiddle part, adding variety to the arrangement by the simple but very effective technique of alternating between a rhythmic drone and fast-flowing fills. The song itself has followed the grand folk tradition of travelling around the world; Niamh came across it in a collection of Australian folk songs given to her by her sister but spotted that the melody has been used by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger and George Butterworth, amongst others. Another of folk music’s favoured girl-meets-boy themes, it has a definite sting in its tail.

Irish-born singer-songwriter Anthony John Clarke wrote ‘The Only Life Gloria Knows’; it appears on his 1999 album Man With A Red Guitar and has become one of his most-requested songs. The lyrics explore a similar theme to Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets Of London’ but are centred on an older woman who finds herself having to sleep rough and the many hardships she endures, while Niamh’s guitar is infused with, but not intimidated by, the spirit of some of the great 1960s folk revivalists (Bert Jansch and John Renbourne come to mind). Paul Sartin adds some very evocative piano at the bridge, arpeggios flowing like a river, in a simple but effective arrangement.

Niamh first learned ‘Ice On The Water’ from Julian Taylor in Lancashire but the instrumental version she plays here derives from an arrangement by George Reynolds, a former member of the Boston-based Rhythm Method String Band. Even so, as Niamh remarks, “It has undergone a sea change in my playing” and the results are astonihingly good. Her fiddle playing has echoes of the great Eliza Carthy, as much in her timbre as in her technique; the overdubs at the coda work especially well and Doug Bailey’s production adds a sense of space to this evocative sound picture.

‘The Flower Of Finae’ is the record’s second a capella tune and, although comparatively lengthy for an unaccompanied piece, the clarity and purity of Niamh’s voice carries it easily. The lyric, written by Thomas Davis in the 1840s, is essentially a love story although its use of the twin themes of Irish courage and resistance made it a suitable subject for those who sought to inspire a new generation of freedom fighters.

Although credited to Elizabeth Smith, a Yorkshire Traveller, her lyric for I’m A-fading Day By Day certainly shows some influence from the 18th century ballad ‘The White Cockade’ – which itself was influenced by other, earlier tunes. All of which goes to show that the great oral tradition has always played a pivotal role in keeping folk music alive over hundreds of years – for which, I’m sure, we’re all truly grateful, regardless of whether a song is collected in Roud or Child! Niamh’s arrangement is admirably straightforward: at its heart is a deceptively simple strummed guitar interspersed with fingerstyle passages with an overdubbed whistle adding further light and shade throughout. Niamh’s vocals more than comfortably handle the modulations between major and minor keys reflecting the ups and downs of the protagonist’s life story in a very listenable reworking of a well-known and much-loved song.

Written by Kate Fagan, the Australian poet and musician, Niamh’s cover of ‘Roll You Sweet Rain’ is a highlight of the album, not least for its memorable chorus. Her voice works well when pitched in the slightly lower register demanded by the song, which keeps up a steady rhythm through her distinctive slapped/picked guitar style. Paul Sartin’s oboe adds colour and sits well against Niamh’s fiddle overdubs, but the icing on the musical cake comes from her sweet harmonies on the chorus.

Along with ‘The Flower Of Finae’, ‘Creggan White Hare’ (Roud 9633) is the second song Niamh learned from Karen Casey at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick – and it’s only Niamh’s self-accompaniment on the bodhran that stops me calling it the album’s third a capella tune. Again, the passion and control that Niamh brings to her singing carry the performance; her clarity making the story easy to follow. In Celtic mythology, white animals are often supernatural creatures so it comes as no surprise that the “jolly sportsmen” – County Armagh’s best hunters and their greyhounds – were unable to catch or kill the hare.

Niamh’s jazzier side makes a reappearance for ‘Bill’s Missed The Last Boat Back’, a song written for her granddad, based on his tales of wartime derring-do, the moral of which would seem to be that you don’t mess with ducks. Niamh’s rhythmic acoustic guitar drives the song along with Paul Sartin vamping on the piano like there’s no tomorrow. Niamh’s improvised, almost scat singing is a nice touch and I can’t help but feel that this would be a great song for Mary Coughlan to cover.

‘Boys Of Mullaghbawn’ (Roud 2362) is the third a capella song here and, as with ‘Dark Inishowen’ and ‘The Flower Of Finae’ before, it’s Naimh’s beautifully nuanced performance that wins the day. Arguably another Irish rebel song like ‘The Flower Of Finae’ (although maybe with a tad more subtlety), there are almost as many versions of the song as there are covers of it, with Christy Moore’s being one of the most well-known. Niamh’s performance tells the tale in a straightforward way, which makes the inherent anger and outrage of the lyric all the clearer and sadly no less relevant to our present, alarmingly xenophobic times.

It’s followed by ‘Red Dust Road’, which takes us from one end of the 18th century transportation route to the other with a lyric which subtly points out the injustices dealt out to Aboriginal Australians by invading white oppressors over the last 250 years. Written on a road trip with her sister around New South Wales, it’s the standout track of the album for me, epitomising all that is good about Niamh’s music. Combining a clear message about a specific social injustice with a strong tune with her undoubted songwriting skills, it’s definitely a pointer for future musical creations and collaborations. The arrangement here is firmly in the contemporary folk milieu with Niamh’s trademark guitar style overlaid with fiddle and mandolin overdubs providing the canvas for some of the sweetest harmonies on the record, but it’s easy to imagine it being reworked in a very radio-friendly full band version.

The record closes with its title track, ‘Maid On The Shore’ (Roud 181), a very old tune of which Martin Carthy’s 1966 reworking is perhaps one of the most notable versions. The gist of the lyric is potentially very problematic: a young woman is lured on to a passing ship by its captain and crew who are clearly intent on gang-rape, the twist is that the young woman sings them all to sleep before stealing their pirated treasure and making good her escape. As much as the lyrics rankle with my feminist views, it has to be said that Niamh’s rendition does make for compelling listening, with a descending chord sequence creating its own tension as it threatens to erupt into dissonance, while a whistle break in the middle eight paints a good picture of the protagonist’s lullaby singing.

Maid On The Shore is an impressively accomplished display of Niamh Boadle’s skills as a musician, writer, singer and arranger and makes the ideal starting point for anyone interested in finding out why she’s one of folk music’s rising stars.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (17 June 2015)

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