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Album review: Fay Hield “Old Adam”

February 1, 2016

‘Old Adam’ marks the welcome return of Fay Hield to the studio, reaffirming her status as one of Britain’s leading singers across the spectrum of traditional and contemporary folk music.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Fay Hield album Old AdamIt’s nearly four years since Fay Hield’s last solo album, so to say that her new record, Old Adam, has been long-awaited is something of an understatement. This relatively long gap between releases (Orfeo saw the light of day in 2012) has occurred mostly as a result of her involvement in other things, most notably with the EFDSS-sponsored The Full English project. Fay has also been touring quite a lot with her own band, The Hurricane Party, most of whom appear variously throughout Old Adam. Additionally, there are guest appearances by Jon Boden and Martin Simpson, both of whom also contributed to Orfeo, while Andy Bell’s production adds a crisp and detailed clarity. The fourteen songs on Old Adam are drawn mainly (but not exclusively) from traditional sources which Fay uses as a starting point for her exploration of “how we use stories and music to understand what it means to be human”.

‘Green Gravel’ (Roud 1368) opens the record and is one of the lead tracks on the digital download single. It’s an interpretation of “a playground song with many versions and variants, none telling the full story” and Fay’s aim was to combine the many bits and pieces which were recorded to create something that made sense to her. The subject matter (mourning) is quite dark, especially for a children’s game, although it’s worth remembering that many such games have quite ancient, folkloric origins. However, regardless of the song’s origins (I actually find these traditions, which may well have their beginnings a lot further back in time than we realise, more fascinating than morbid), this is still one of the album’s highlights. The song leaps out of the speakers from the start, its bone-rattling percussion and sinewy double bass driving the arrangement and carrying the almost chanted vocals and droning strings in a spinning whirl which respects the ancient theme while placing it firmly in a contemporary setting; this is a definite highlight of the album.

Having travelled from Britain to the United States, ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ (Roud 1) has become a staple of many singers and musicians, often under different titles: ‘Gypsy Davey’ seems a favourite, but variations have been recorded by such diverse artists as Lorna Campbell, The Clancy Brothers, June Tabor, Fotheringay and Steeleye Span. The lyric is possibly an early form of social comment, given its twin themes of adultery and Travellers. The arrangement benefits from the light touch of all concerned, its faint echoes of the 1970s folk-rock style never overshadowed by its upbeat feel, it successfully offers, as Fay says, “an enticing glimpse of a world we could inhabit, if only we would follow our hearts”.

Derived from a poem by William Gray and set to a new arrangement of a traditional tune, ‘Katie Catch’ tells of the romance between the protagonist and her beau, one Johnny Walker. It’s a gently bucolic track with lovely ensemble harmonies and some nicely detailed percussion; the massed ranks of fiddles engage in a courtly dance with mandolin and guitar and the whole makes for a happy, upbeat interlude.

Exploring one of the Bible’s oldest stories – what Fay calls “the fantasy of a purity of life, before corruption and sin” – the record’s title track ‘Old Adam’ (Roud 728) is believed to exist in over fifty different versions. Fay adds to the collection through the inclusion of two different arrangements of it here. The first, set to a tune by Jon Boden, adds a refrain which may be familiar to many: “When Adam delved and Eve she span, who was then the gentle man?”. It’s an interesting choice – the rhyme, thought by some to date to the times after the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century, has been said to contain its own revolutionary subtext (when God created Adam and Eve there were no Lords of the Manor, so why should there be any now?) – which expands the generally accepted, dare I say, pro-women’s equality gist of the verses. Taken at a stately pace the arrangement contains a wealth of sensitive, empathic playing which creates the effect of there being many more musicians present than you might think at first listening. Despite my aversion to organised religion generally, ‘Old Adam’ is not just a highlight, I’d say it’s definitely the album’s centrepiece.

‘The Hag In The Beck’, meanwhile, leaps forward some three hundred years to consider a subject which, for many, is the very antithesis of Christianity: the otherworldly concerns of witchcraft. It offers a curiously satisfying alternative point of view to ‘Old Adam’, although – lest we forget – the 17th century was a time in which certain ideas were severely frowned upon by society; where being caught doing such seemingly innocent things as digging for roots to feed your livestock could be misinterpreted and lead you to, for example, the local assizes and thence to the gallows. There’s a wealth of unspoken words and assumptions in the lyric, but its reflection of contemporary mores and the apparent mass hysteria of the times is a fascinating topic. An almost bluesy acoustic guitar underpins a lone fiddle echoing Fay’s melody, while distant nyckelharpa drones, random metallic screeches and intermittent percussion conjure up a menacing and foreboding mood in one of my favourite tracks of the album.

Featuring as the second track on the digital download single, the unashamedly romantic ‘Willow Glen’ (Roud V1634) was previously included as part of the Full English Band’s live set a couple of years ago but it’s good to hear it reworked here. It retains the slow and melodious arrangement of the FEB’s version, but benefits from a backing of electric guitar and concertina. A sweet and calming interlude which sits well in the sequencing of the album.

Supposedly based on the last confession of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the narrative ballad ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’ may contain some truths but, as Fay says in the sleeve notes, “the picture painted is so distorted to suit our own entertainment it hardly seems fair to those involved”. But, as they say, never let the facts spoil a good story and, to be fair, it does make a rollicking good yarn with enough ingredients to make even a modern-day tabloid tabloid journalist envious: a queen on her deathbed, conspiracies, betrayal – it’s all here! This version derives its melody from Tim Hart and Maddy Prior’s recording on their 1969 duo album Folk Songs of Old England Volume 2, although Fay’s midtempo, full band arrangement enables a much greater range of light and shade. The string parts are as lush as a brocade ballgown, while the percussion and bass rumble distantly like armies on the battlefield.

With acoustic guitar and fiddle following the melody in unison, ‘The Hornet And The Beetle’ (Roud 12624) has a very sparse feel which foregrounds its lyric, a complex allegorical examination of the 19th century justice system. It’s a tune which may pass you by on first hearing but it reveals its more hidden depths on further listens. Some of the Cotswold-specific words and phrases in particular are a joy to hear: as Fay says, “[the song] shows us the folly of our justice system, though who’d have thought we’d need a woodpecker to do this?”.

‘Jack Orion’ (Roud 145) has been covered numerous times with good reason: while it deals with the touchy subject of adultery, it does so in such an exuberant way that it’s hard to resist. Fay’s arrangement is pregnant with an air of anticipation with a fast, bowed double bass and percussion like rolling thunder. The twin fiddle breaks between verses and at the coda bracket the song’s dense lyrical content; add in Fay’s proven skill as a singer and the result is an unforced and very listenable reworking. Another of the album’s highlights.

There’s a jaunty folk-rock feel to ‘Long Time Ago’ (Roud 318), thanks in large part to its syncopated arrangement and electric bass underpinnings, with hints of Americana in the fiddle arrangements and some glorious ensemble harmony singing. Also known as ‘Noah’s Ark Shanty’ and ‘In Frisco Bay’, the lyric draws on a Biblical theme although, unlike old ‘Old Adam’, its meaning is more direct, simpler and well suited to its origin as a nautical work song.

Thought by some to have originated in the 16th century, the downtempo and melancholic ‘Go From My Window’ (Roud 966) strikes a chord through its universal subject matter, broken hearts and love gone bad. From its atmospheric start, with Sam Sweeney’s melancholic nyckelharpa and some mournful strings, it paints a vivid sound picture of its moping protagonist before being lifted by the introduction of Toby Kearney’s insistent percussion and an increased tempo.

The nautical theme is revisited in ‘Anchor Song’, although this time it’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling that provides the inspiration, rather than a traditional shanty. That said, and regardless of your opinion of Kipling – and he does seem a somewhat divisive character – there’s no doubt that, at its best, his work offers many clear insights into the human condition. While ‘Anchor Song’ may not be the easiest of his writings (Fay herself says that she finds understanding it difficult), this reworking and arrangement sit easily in the flow of the album. Ben Nicholls’ double bass is very much at the heart of it with Rob Harbron’s English concertina adding a curiously European feel. There seem to be key changes before every verse, but Fay’s skill as a singer mean she’s able to match them with ease, the result is a very listenable song which offers an unexpectedly welcome insight into her musical eclecticism.

Talking of eclecticism, the penultimate track, the Tom Waits composition ‘The Briar And The Rose’ might seem about as far from the collections of Roud and Child as you could imagine. Conversely, anyone familiar with albums like Blue Valentine might wonder how one of Waits’ songs could fit into the blend of traditional and contemporary British folk music at the heart of Old Adam. However, a close listen to the original suggests ‘The Briar And The Rose’ was informed by traditional themes and it becomes clear why Fay selected it. Like ‘Willow Glen’, it has previously featured in Fay’s live repertoire (with The Hurricane Party) and this studio reworking is quite lovely. Bookended by a capella vocals at beginning and end, it unfolds at a leisurely pace with fiddles and Roger Wilson’s discreet and well-placed electric guitar phrases adding just the right amount of light and shade. The album ends as it began, with an atmospheric, instrumental reprise of ‘Old Adam’ built around a repeated guitar motif over a flowing fretless electric bass and delicate concertina flourishes.

Old Adam marks the welcome return of Fay Hield to the studio, reaffirming her status as one of Britain’s leading singers across the spectrum of traditional and contemporary folk music. Fay’s ongoing collaboration with The Hurricane Party adds depth and a certain energy; the result is an album where the material and its arrangements are in perfect equilibrium, allowing her clear and rich voice the space to deliver the songs with that rare mix of emotion and sensitivity which is the hallmark of her style.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 February 2016)

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