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Album review: The Changing Room “Picking Up The Pieces”

August 2, 2016

The musical collaboration of Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly digs ever deeper into the culture, heritage and traditions of Cornwall – a fresh and compelling display of creative symbiosis, suffused with a wild beauty and offering tantalising insights into the proud heart and soul of this ancient Celtic nation.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of The Changing Room - Picking Up The PiecesPicking Up The Pieces is the second album from Cornwall-based folk collective The Changing Room: the multi-award winning collaborative project between Sam Kelly (vocals, guitar) and Tanya Brittain (vocals, accordion), whose 2015 debut Behind The Lace was described by FRUK’s Simon Holland in his review as “a great set of songs, with a sprinkle of magic”. Retaining the services of Jamie Francis (banjo), Evan Carson (percussion) and Morrigan Palmer Brown (harp), the new album also features contributions from Kevin McGuire (upright bass), John McCusker (fiddle) and Belinda O’Hooley (piano) and it makes a fine follow-up and companion piece to Behind The Lace.

The Cornish connection which featured so strongly and to such good effect in the band’s debut is again a major artistic theme which underpins Picking Up The Pieces, and nowhere more so than in the opening ‘Caradon Hill’; a lyrical word-picture imagining the hardships of life as a miner in what was the biggest copper mine in the UK in its heyday in the 19th century. Tanya’s emotive harmonies reinforce Sam’s passionate vocals while John’s fiddle weaves in and out of the melody as the midtempo arrangement builds slowly and purposefully to its striking a capella coda.

A loosely biographical account of one of Cornwall’s most (in)famous 18th century entrepreneurs provides the inspiration for ‘Zephaniah Job’. His financial acumen enabled him to become “the greatest single benefactor” in the history of the Cornish village of Polperro, managing not only the business side of the smuggling trade but also helping many of the residents by managing their financial affairs, acting as advisor, accountant and banker. The tale of this paragon of enlightened capitalism makes for a joyously celebratory uptempo song. Tanya and Sam take lead vocals in alternate verses, coming together for the refrains, while Jamie and Sam’s impressively tight unison riffing provide a solid platform for John and Tanya to add some well-placed splashes of musical colour in one of the album’s highlights.

Staying in 18th century Cornwall, ‘The Grayhound’ provides a suitable counterpoint to the story of Zephaniah Job, reminding us that smugglers were constantly targetted by officialdom in the pursuit of unpaid customs duties. The Grayhound was what was known as a revenue lugger – a privately-owned, armed vessel, carrying a letter of Marque issued by the government – in effect, authorised to chase down and impound smugglers’ ships and contents, to sell at auction. The song’s descending chord sequence is taken at a stately pace with Sam’s vocals high in the mix, anchored by the rhythm section of Evan’s drums and Sam’s punchy electric bass. Given momentum by the judicious placement of Jamie’s fingerstyle banjo, John’s free-flowing fiddle and Tanya’s billowing accordion chords, the arrangement of ‘The Grayhound’ sits well within the ebb and flow of the album’s sequencing.

The contributions made by women and girls to the 18th century mining industries of Cornwall and Devon are often written out of the history books, so the inclusion of a song on that very topic is as welcome as it is long overdue. Deriving its title in part from the Cornish word for a mine, ‘Bal Maiden’s Waltz’ tells of the hard manual labour carried out by the countless, unsung women and girls known colloquially as bal maidens to process the raw ore sent up to the surface by the male miners underground. A delicate, introspective arrangement which seems to float on the air, it repays closer listening and is currently my favourite song of the album.

Written by Tanya and sung in the Cornish language, ‘Gwrello Glaw’ (‘Let It Rain’ in English) is, according to the CD’s sleeve notes, “about weathering the storm and living life to the full, regardless of what’s thrown at you”. An admirable sentiment it may be, although a more world-weary listener might wonder if it could be a lifestyle choice requiring a degree of determination to follow – something perhaps hinted at in the song’s slow, introspective feel. Nevertheless, Sam sings with conviction and his guitar playing is faultless, while the contributions from Morrigan Palmer Brown (harp) and a multitracked John McCusker (harmonium and fiddle) appear like rays of sunshine through the lowering clouds.

‘The Cinder Track’ lifts the tempo with a stomping, rocky song about “the men who build the roads”; appropriately enough, I can imagine it making a great drivetime tune. In the context of the album, it makes a good bridge into ‘Koh-I-Noor’ (written by producer Boo Hewerdine). A lyrical musing on the longevity of minerals and the comparative shortness of the human lifespan, the song’s arrangement benefits greatly from its sparseness: Sam’s voice and acoustic guitar are supported discreetly by Jamie’s banjo and a sweet accordion solo by Tanya in the middle eight.

The origins of the lyrics of the traditional ‘Delyow Sevi’ (also known in English as ‘Strawberry Leaves’) are shrouded in the mists of time, although it’s been said that it’s the only surviving folk song to have been originally recorded in Cornish, rather than a later translation by modern revivalists. The Changing Room’s arrangement seems to draw its inspiration from ‘Delyo Syvy’, recorded by Brenda Wootton and Rob Bartlett for their 1975 album Starry Gazey Pie (Sentinel SENS 1031), albeit at a slightly slower tempo. It’s a dreamy, bucolic affair which still moves along at a fair old pace, foregrounding Morrigan’s nimble harp while the interplay between Sam and Tanya’s vocals is a pleasure to hear. All in all, it’s another of the album’s highlights and one which I find myself returning to.

‘Tie ‘Em Up’, written by Geoff Lakeman, burns with a combination of anger and resignation at the human cost of the imposition (by successive governments in Westminster) of EU-agreed fishing quotas, although whether the post-Brexit future will improve things for the Cornish fishermen and their families, remains to be seen.

The anti-war sentiments of ‘We Will Remember Them’ are hard to disagree with and, although the lyrics ask more questions than they answer, the pared-down arrangement of Sam (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Belinda O’Hooley (piano) is powerful and emotive.

The bleak worldview of the two preceding songs is tempered by the closing ‘It’s All Downhill From Here’, a jaunty paean to the golden days of the railways when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, before its negative impact on the lives of millions of people really began to be felt. Still, it’s a stomper of a song with an undeniably catchy refrain which will undoubtedly be a real crowd-pleaser in the live setting and certainly brings the album to an upbeat close.

As the musical collaboration of Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly digs ever deeper into the culture, heritage and traditions of Cornwall, so the music of The Changing Room grows and flourishes further. Picking Up The Pieces is a fresh and compelling display of this creative symbiosis, suffused with a wild beauty and offering tantalising insights into the proud heart and soul of this ancient Celtic nation.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 August 2016)

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