Maddy Prior has been in the public eye for about 50 years. Starting out in a duo with Tim Hart, they both took part in starting Steeleye Span, the only folk rock band to make an impact on the singles charts. The band is still going, but over the years Prior has also found time for various other collaborations, with June Tabor and The Carnival Band, among others, as well as releasing solo albums.
If you look at the cover of this you might be excused for thinking this is another solo project. Prior’s name is in much larger letters than those of Hannah James and Giles Lewis. But do not let ypurself be fooled. This is a true trio effort. Each member has written things on the album, each takes solos and each has arranged tracks.
I have come across Hannah James twice before, first as a member of Lady Maisery, an all woman trio. Then she has toured with her solo show ”Jig Doll”, where she combines her talents as accordion player, singer and clog dancer.
Giles Lewin has escaped my attention before, but he is a member of the Carnival Band and he was a founding member of Bellowhead. He plays the fiddle, sings, composes and arranges.
My first reaction to this record was one of amazement. Is it possible to deliver such a variety of styles, such a full sounds with just two instruments and three voices? Of course, in this case the answer is yes.
The main theme of the album is birds. From the energetic opening of ”Austringer”, about the handling of goshawks, to the soft closing song, ”The Curlew”, complete with recorded bird sounds from Norway, all tracks but one has a connection to the theme.
”Jenny Wren” is an a capella set of three traditional songs about the often sung about little bird.
”The Flying Boy” was written by Lewis. A strange tale based on his son’s dreams, with a strange time signature that takes a while to figure out.
”The Grey Heron” is an instrumental, also by Lewis. If you did not know you might think it was something from the 15th or 16th century, maybe one of John Dowland’s pieces transcribed for fiddle and accordion.
On ”The Swallow” we are back in a capella land, with Prior taking the lead and the others providing harmonies.
Then we are given to slow beautiful tunes signed “James”, ”The Lucky Blackbird” and ”House of White Roses”. On the first listening I was waiting for it to turn into a boisterous reel, but it never does, and once you have dispensed of that idea you are able to love it for what it is.
”Murmuration” is one of the key tracks here. Starting off with the accordion, then turning into something like a canon with just the title word, Prior takes us to the main song, about the strange formations starlings create in the evening. A beautiful melody with lovely harmonies on the chorus.
”The Owl” is a poem by Emily Dickenson set to music by Lewis. A wonderful a capella arrangement.
The only track not about birds comes next. ”The Fabled Hare” is a seven-part-set lasting 13 minutes plus. Including several songs, most written by Prior, and instrumental passages, sometimes slow and reflective, sometimes strongly rhythmic, with clogs provided by James, it is a showcase for everything this trio can provide. And it ends in the fast instrumental I had expected earlier.
Before the closing instrumental we get another beautiful a capella song, the Irish ”The Lark in the Clear Air”. Almost like a resting place after the mighty hare set.
I must admit it took some listening to get into this album. You have to wipe out all expectations of anything folk-rocky and let the overall atmosphere of the album sink into you before you can appreciate it fully. But once you do you will find a real gem. I have tried to find the right words to describe it, but it comes in somewhere between delicate, tasteful, relaxing and truly beautiful. Just give it time and other album will find it hard to get into you CD player.
(Park Records, 2017)