The mother-daughter duo of Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy are members of the first family of English folk music. Although Norma has been recording since the ‘50s and Eliza the ’90s, they hadn’t recorded as a duo until 2010’s award-winning Gift. They’re following that up with another album of traditional and contemporary songs, drawing on their extended family and a crack band.
Norma Waterson is a treasure who ought to be granted World Heritage status, and she’s been in poor health so it’s always great to hear from her. That rugged, warm voice of hers with its gift of phrasing is just a wonder to behold, whether she’s singing an ancient ballad or a jazz standard or a pop ditty. Eliza’s vocal instrument is in some ways a younger and less weathered version of Norma’s, but bolder and brassier; and her exquisite and supple fiddling is a true gift. And of course when they’re joined by husband and father Martin Carthy (a leading light of the folk world on a par with the late Pete Seeger), it feels like you’re at the center of the English-speaking folk song universe.
Celestial imagery in fact runs through Anchor like the Milky Way through the night sky: songs about the weather, heaven, the sun and stars predominate from the opener, the Tom Waits-Kathleen Brennan song “Strange Weather” to the closer of the album proper, a jaunty take on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” including a bunch of verses none of us have sung since grade school. In between is a creative take on Kurt Weill’s classic “Lost In The Stars” with Norma singing the lead on this highly symbolic tale, and which segues without a break into Eliza’s cover of the Monty Python classic “The Galaxy Song.” Weill’s emotion-laden irony followed by Eric Idle’s more-or-less scientifically accurate parody on the utter insignificance of human life. Bravo!
Production is by Neill MacColl and Kate St. John, and they do a bang-up job. I’m not at all clear who’s in the Gift Band that’s also credited on the album cover, but some of these pieces are highly orchestrated rather like Eliza’s recent Wayward Band release. The second track, a bang-up shanty-like version of the old Child Ballad “The Elfin Knight” is one like that, and it’ll knock you over. “The Elfin Knight” has been recorded by everybody, possibly first by Ewan MacColl (that’s Neil’s father if you’re wondering) and Eliza leads this raucous take on it.
Another real treat is Martin Carthy leading a stripped-down version of “Scarborough Fair,” which he has quite a history with. This is a different version that somebody brought to him, that came down from a different neighborhood of England – in it the woman tells the man that he has to buy that acre and plow and plant and harvest it, and then maybe he can have that cambric shirt and “be a true love of mine.” Eliza talks about this and other aspects of the album in a fine interview at GrizzlyFolk.com.
The band dips further into the old songbook for ditties by Stephen Foster (“Nelly Was A Lady”) and Rudyard Kipling. The comic round “The Widow’s Party” is led by Martin but a big crowd gets in on the singing of both of these.
The disc’s title comes from an old hymn that’s a bonus track on the CD. This date was recorded in an old church that had a working organ, so they enlisted it to record an rousing ensemble take on “We Have An Anchor.”
Chamber folk, old hymns, contemporary rock and folk, a lullaby, Monty Python … it’s all grist for the Watersons and Carthys, and it’s a fine gift to us listening from the pews.