There’s a skill to getting a début album just right. Overdo it on the wacky or individualist side and you’re pigeon-holed before the CD even hits the shops. On the other hand, play it too safe and your opening shot is lost in the land of beige. The Willows, however, have a salient lesson for the newbies out there. Their début album, Beneath Our Humble Soil, is neither wacky nor bland but is, rather, a fine collection of songs that reach out to a wide audience.
Formed in 2010, The Willows hail from Cambridge and describe themselves as folk roots – which sounds about as close as you could get without sticking an alt- in front of half a dozen different musical genres. Their eponymous EP was released in 2011, was very well received (not least on these very pages), and a string of hugely successful live performances has helped them amass an enthusiastic live following.
Their predominantly acoustic sound is led by Jade Ward’s wonderfully alluring voice, which is at its most mystical in the opening, Out At Sea. Jade’s voice sea-breezes in from somewhere far-off and magical as husband Cliff Ward joins on banjo and guitar. While a tale unfolds, the band’s wider sound does too, with the full band in the mix (Ben Savage; guitar, Dobro, vocals and Stephen MacLachlan; percussion, piano, vocals) until Prue Ward’s driving fiddle steps up the pace for a lively conclusion. The pace is kept going with Bella’s Fury – there’s fury indeed in that voice, with a stronger American flavour and The Willows approaching the realms of the murder ballad from a very rakish angle.
It’s a very appealing mix altogether – with their blend of US and UK roots influences, compelling vocals and, of course, strong and imaginative song writing.
Absent Friends takes on a nostalgic theme in a gentle song that opens with poetic charm – Candles flicker faster in the colder night, and closes with an uplifting smile. In contrast, The Outlaw stomps out its tale of guilt and is undoubtedly a huge favourite live. Sit this beside the sing-along chorus of Worker’s War and you begin to understand the rave live reviews.
The album has its tender phases too. Gone Are The Days is a gentle song of love and parting with beautifully arranged vocals, and there’s irresistible poetry in the melancholy Moths – But when the dawn comes calling for lovers to kiss / And your heart is fated it’s sealed with a wish. Even a brief foray into the world of folk-rock in the fascinating (but, as yet, unfathomable) Numb seems to present no obstacles. All the music is delivered to the listener in a package that sounds less like a début every time I listen.
Beneath Our Humble Soil is a hugely enjoyable album; with songs that engage and enliven, music that appeals across the board, and there’s no doubt that Jade Ward’s husky tones create bewitching vocal performances. The Willows have developed a winning combination, just as comfortable with a gutsy rendition of their own murder ballad as they are with a foot-stompin’ alt-country protest song. A warm and wonderful release.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Album Stream – Beneath our Humble Soil
Friday 22 – Royston Folk Club, Royston
Sunday 24 – Bournemouth Folk Club, Bournemouth
Tuesday 26 – The Musician, Leicester
Wednesday 27 – The Bluebell Inn, Hempstead, Saffron Walden
Friday 1 – Mink, Middlesborough
Tuesday 5 – The Bedford, London
Tuesday 12 – The Gardeners Arms, Loughton
Wednesday 13 – The Stables, Milton Keynes
Friday 15 – Cambridge Folk Club, Cambridge
Saturday 16 – Maidstone House Gigs
Sunday 17 – The Brunswick, Brighton
Thursday 21 – Half Moon Bishop’s Stortford
Friday 22 – Kontra Roots, Finedon