It’s unlike me to come straight to the point, but what the heck: I love this album. Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp’s The Poacher’s Fate plonked through my door about a month ago and I promptly went out and bought a CD player so that I could listen to it. (It’s only since I began writing this blog that CDs became a part of my life again – the old ways die hard in the folk tradition, it would seem). Clearly, the album hasn’t disappointed. (Did I tell you how much I love it yet?)
Let me explain why.
Although I came to traditional music quite late, I’ve been a fan of ‘folkish’ music ever since I first heard Bob Dylan on my mum’s cassette machine three decades ago. Since then I’ve been there and back again, in terms of the music I’ve obsessed over. I’ve ranged out every which way, but try as I might, I’ve always had a problem with that slightly fey thing that so easily seems to attach itself to the folk world. It’s hard to put my finger on it. Ian Anderson, in last month’s interview, talked about having a problem with ‘the folk voice’, and maybe that’s somewhere close to it… but it’s not quite there. It’s a tendency towards over-production and what might be called ‘the etherial’ that puts me off. Maybe it’s because I started off with the gruff sounds of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but I’ve always preferred acoustic musicians that lay it bare, and since there’s nothing better than watching a traditional folk group lock in and take flight onstage, I tend to love it best when it’s unadorned.
Now, this is obviously my particular preference and it’d be wrong of me to base my judgement of an entire album, or attempt to influence my readers, on my rather petty dislike for heavy reverb. However, I can’t pretend that certain relating factors didn’t have me fairly jumpy with excitement over the arrival of this CD. Of particular note: it was recorded by Ian Carter of Stick in the Wheel. Anyone paying close attention to the modern traditional folk scene in the UK will know that this is a producer who feels strongly about the bare bones approach, and indeed, had I been a richer man I’d have hired him to record my own recent release.
The second key factor was Laura Smyth herself. As the senior librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, she has the kind of job many other folkies would die for – me included. It fascinated me how someone in her position might go about making an album, simply because working in that library must be a bit like being a kid in a sweet shop. She spends her days surrounded by the nation’s folk songs; which songs would she choose? How could she possibly know where to begin? I’m sure the sheer choice alone would drive me mad. On top of all that, during my recent interview with Steve Roud, she was named as one of his favourite folk singers, mainly (he said) because she performed the songs so wonderfully unadorned. Now, as the man behind the index used by nearly all folk scholars, he must’ve heard an awful lot of folk singers. Sure, it’s all subjective, but he seems like someone worth paying attention to.
Poor Laura and Ted. That’s an awful lot to live up to. Thank goodness they’ve managed it, then. For this is an album of subtlety and style, of taste and restraint, and it’s easily one of my favourites of the year.
Other websites have pointed out that the stripped-down nature of the album makes it reminiscent of folk albums dating from the early 70s, and it’s certainly true that I was put in mind of some of the less ornate performers of the period. I mean that in a very good way. There’s both a purity and measure to Laura’s voice that puts me in mind of someone like Anne Briggs. I think it has something to do with not over-egging the pudding – of choosing what works for the song rather than throwing a three-octave swoop at the listener just because she can. Have a listen to her take on ‘There is a Tavern’ or ‘The Brown Hare of Whitebrook’, both exquisite melodies delivered with a grace and simplicity that would have been lost had she made use of any more than the simplest of ornaments.
It’s here, too, that Ian Carter’s restraint also plays a huge part. Drench any of this in the usual excessive production and you end up with something altogether too cosy. He simply sets up the mics and lets the performers carry the album themselves. It takes a really good musician to know when not to get in the way of the song.
Laura’s is also one of those voices that sits nicely against something more rough and ready, and Ted Kemp’s singing provides exactly that. You can hear this most clearly on the songs that they sing as an unaccompanied duo – the opening title track (‘A Poacher’s Fate’) as well as ‘Brave Benbo’ – as he holds down the undertow while she soars above. His voice may be one of the things that may put reviewers in mind of the Revival period – straightforward, unassuming, quite nasal; it’s certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but fans of early Martin Carthy and his ilk will find something comfortingly familiar here.
Ultimately, the album succeeds on the choice of songs – the very thing that I assume could easily have overwhelmed someone in Laura Smyth’s position. The expectation might be for her to know about and have access to the most obscure songs, but a good album is often about balance. While some of the melodies here triggered memories of other songs, the versions that Laura and Ted have chosen were not known to me at all (with perhaps the exception of ‘Wild Rover’). While Laura herself is (I believe) a Manchester lass, I particularly enjoyed the nationwide romp that this album took in, not to mention the historical ramble. It’s the ultimate compliment to any songwriter working around the folk tradition that their own compositions could be mistaken for something from the cannon, but that’s exactly what happened with ‘Alizon Device’ – a song that sent me searching the archives for more folk songs based on the Pendle Witch Trials, only to find that Laura had written it herself.
Much like Jack Rutter’s Hills, this is a wonderful album of stripped-down restraint, showcasing the songs as much (if not more) than the singers themselves. When Ewan McLennan tweets that, “Lots of the best aspects of the revival appear to be back“, it’s tempting to think that he might be right, and that little gems like The Poacher’s Fate have a huge amount to do with that.