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Album review: Lucy Ward “I Dreamt I Was A Bird”

October 2, 2015

I Dreamt I Was A Bird is a sterling example of all that is good about contemporary folk music in Britain today and looks set to establish Lucy Ward in her rightful place alongside the scene’s “big names”.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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I Dreamt I Was A Bird is the third album by BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner Lucy Ward and its nine tracks make the ideal showcase for the talented Derbyshire singer/songwriter’s many talents – and, of course, her impressive vocal style. Stu Hanna (Megson) is once again drafted in as producer and musical contributor, consolidating a creative partnership which works very well. In terms of content, Lucy plays to her established strengths; as she says in the PR notes:

“Lyrically the album is about being grounded, being of and for the landscape, whether urban or rural. All the songs are about real people and moments, inspired by incidental comments overheard in a supermarket queue, chance conversations with strangers, stories from my own family history and little moments in time.”

The opening ‘Summers That We Made’ is one of the album’s highlights, not least for its demonstration of Lucy’s skill at crafting well-observed lyrics set to appropriately evocative arrangements. Lyrically, the song is about those short but intense summer romances which burn as brightly as the midsummer sunrise before fading before the mists of autumn. Musically, it’s a very contemporary chamber-folk composition with Anna Esslemont’s multi-tracked violin weaving delicately around Lucy’s gentle vocals in a faultlessly bittersweet performance.

Lucy Ward - I Dreamt I Was A Bird coverThe mood shifts dramatically for ‘Ode To Whittaker Brown’, the story of a child born to a single parent in the 1950s, when the stigma facing such families was much greater than now (not that it’s a bed of roses for anyone in that situation today). The arrangement is measured and a perfect fit for the tale: Lukas Drinkwater’s double bass shines like the full moon on the rainy cobbled streets of Stu Hanna’s electric organ, while Lucy’s percussive acoustic guitar punctuates the darkness like the slamming of doors.

‘Creatures And Demons’ arose from a commission by BBC Radio 3 for their poetry and literature strand, The Verb. In her song, Lucy takes a fresh look at the novel North and South, by the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell, which many will know for its social commentary on relations between employers and workers in both the industrial north of England and the rural south. Like the novel, Lucy’s lyric considers each side of the two divides, geographical and economic, although it’s clear that her sympathies are with those who have been failed by capitalism’s poverty deniers. The song’s ascending chord sequence conveys the soul-destroying repetition of mechanised work while Stephen MacLachlan’s drums knit tightly with Sam Pegg’s bass to create an almost claustrophobic sense of menace, above which Lucy’s passionate voice lets rip with some angry, anguished howls to the song’s crescendo.

Like many people, I do like a proper, old-fashioned murder ballad and the traditional ‘Lord Randall’ (Child 12) more than fits that description. It’s an ancient theme – some say it may even have its roots in pre-Christian ritual – but there have been so many variations and tunes it’s hard to see the proverbial wood from the trees. The song itself is one of those timeless evergreens that’s appealed to countless musicians from Ewan MacColl to Martin Carthy and even the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubautenone (‘Ein Stuhl In Der Hölle’ from 1989’s Haus der Lüge), who must surely rate as one of the not-so-usual suspects! I’ve always had a soft spot for Maddy Prior’s version (‘What Had You for Supper?’ from 1993’s Year), mostly for her very contemporary updating of the lyric with references to Sellafield and signing on, so it’s a refreshing change to hear Lucy’s take on it. While the musical arrangement is very much in the folk-rock tradition with an electric band (guitar, bass and drums), it’s the performance that takes it to another level: a huge power ballad absolutely dominated by Lucy’s voice and sure to become a mainstay of live shows in the future.

‘Lion’ is based on the true story of 21-year old Rifleman Robert Loveless Barker, who was executed for cowardice during the First World War, and whose name is commemorated on the Shot At Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. I can’t help feeling that the symptoms so graphically described in the lyric would be diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today, a fact which makes the story all the more heartbreaking. The song was originally commissioned by Billy Bragg for the 14-18 NOW project and performed at the Left Field stage at Glastonbury in 2014 (you can see the video in FRUK’s Song of the Day feature here). As powerful as Lucy’s solo performance is in that recording, this newly-recorded studio version brings additional pathos to the arrangement with the inclusion of the Brighouse and Rastrick Band for a moving performance which certainly gave me pause for thought.

The quiet introspection of ‘Lion’ gives way to a lighter mood in ‘Song For Lola’, a charming encapsulation of one of those “little moments in time” that Lucy referred to in the PR notes. Written about a chance encounter with a small girl in Lucy’s home neighbourhood, this sweet and simple song is written and performed with evident affection. Musically, the twin acoustic guitars weave a gossamer web of sound but it’s the vocal harmonies that lift the song far beyond the simplicity of the story to paint a truly lovely sound picture of summer. A highlight of the album, in more ways than one!

Taking its cue from one of those tall tales that families often delight in teasing their younger members with, ‘Daniel And The Mermaid’ relates the story of a great great uncle who reportedly caught a mermaid off the Hebridean Isle of Mull. I shall tactfully refrain from making scurrilous remarks about the island also being home to the whisky distillery at Tobermory, but I will say that the song’s arrangement is highly evocative, cast adrift amongst mysterious sounds conjuring up mental images of wild coastlines, rocky shores and sea mists, interspersed with some subterranean bass, over which Lucy’s ghostly vocals shimmer, awash in waves of reverb.

A more conventional arrangement is employed for ‘Connie And Bud’ which sounds like it should be set in a small mid-West town where the Great American Dream became a nightmare from which there was no awakening. The protagonists are a homeless young couple and their new baby, struggling to survive on his dead-end job as a mechanic, and whose only roof over their heads is that of a broken-down car in the garage yard. The arrangement is equally mournful and the couple’s sense of hopelessness is vividly portrayed in a downbeat slice of Americana that feels like it should be soundtracking an Edward Hopper painting.

The album closes with ‘Return To Earth’, inspired by a visit Lucy made to Titterstone Clee Hill, near Ludlow, which has been occupied since the Bronze Age but has seen more recent and intrusive exploitation by mining for coal and for rock for road-building. The mining has long since finished but numerous decaying quarry buildings remain, slowly being reclaimed by the landscape and giving the hill a sombre, almost otherworldly feel. Lucy has said that “the juxtaposition between cold harsh structures and lush green landscape stuck in my mind” and she muses on the human cost of this activity in a concise but very imaginative lyric. The music matches the introspective mood with the band successfully creating an intense mood of heavy industry in full flight, building relentlessly to its inevitable end in Lucy’s closing couplet, “We are choking, I can no longer sing”.

I Dreamt I Was A Bird is a sterling example of all that is good about contemporary folk music in Britain today and looks set to establish Lucy Ward in her rightful place alongside the scene’s “big names”. Between now and December she’ll be touring intensively around the UK and Europe in support of the record; if you get the chance to see her, you should grab the opportunity with both hands – and pick up a copy of the album while you’re there!

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 October 2015)

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