Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin a duo who have managed to find a distinctive voice in what is a fairly well subscribed format of musical twosomes. In large part it’s simply down to their instrumental and vocal skills, but add thought provoking songs and some equally imaginative arrangements and the sum of the parts is soon eclipsed. Mynd is the very special second outing for their burgeoning musical partnership.
The couple have played together for some five or six years. It seems Hannah was originally recruited by the musical partner, Tobias Ben Jacob, who Phillip had left behind, when he departed the UK to study music in India. On his return the trio took up together and when that eventually dissolved Phillip and Hannah continued. Although Phillip was originally from Lancashire, they’ve settled in Devon, there attracting the endorsement of Steve Knightley amongst others. As an active champion, support tours with Show Of Hands and Steve’s solo shows helped spread the word.
Now on their second album together, the musical chemistry is obvious. Both are great players and seem to find the spaces that the other leaves. Phillip’s slide, dobro and Indian chatturangui playing is simply stunning, often quite sparse and sparring, but never less than spine tingling, while Hannah’s violin, viola, tenor guitar and banjo are also important for their expansive musical range. Perhaps it is Hannah’s voice that really makes this special, although of course, they also harmonise wonderfully well together.
The opener Silbury Hill weaves a mystical time slip into a journey across Salisbury Plain to London, inspired by the ancient barrow lands. It combines all of their strengths demonstrating that chemistry as their multi instrumental skills and voices meld beautifully. Phillip’s Dobro and lap steel seem to float with Hannah’s viola, as each instrument occupies a distinct space, creating a dreamy haze and their voices work in harmony. The song is urged on by Hannah’s fluid banjo with Matt Downer’s bass, Robbie Burgess on drums and Phillip’s djembe, a rope tuned drum, adding a little whiff of something more exotic. The song takes an almost mythical turn as Hannah sings, “From the top I am told, you can see to the edge of the world.”
Their adventurous sonic palate develops further through The Nailmakers’ Strike (parts 1 and 2). The first is a rhythmically shifting instrumental with Phillip’s guitar plucked over Hannah’s viola and violin, which start as a drone, but pick up the tune, once again finding the space around Phillip’s shifting patterns. Part 2 introduces Phillip’s beat boxing, which slips in surprisingly naturally as the song also borrows the chorus of the Abyssinians Declaration Of Rights, a classic reggae tune from the late 70s when the Rasta movement seemed at it’s most energised politically. Phillip uses his harmonica to echo a dub style, while Hannah’s vocal line and violin adds the folk tune to the supple fusion and once again, the double bass drives the bottom end.
There is an otherworldly start to Song For Caroline Herschel as Hannah sings “The sun sinks low, night draws in, Now is the time for star gazing.” It tells the story of the eponymous German émigré, who overcame considerable personal difficulty to become feted for astronomical discoveries and the first woman to be paid by the British state for furthering science. She was struck down by Typhus as a child which stunted her growth and came to the UK in 1772 with her brother William, who was an organist and music teacher. Caroline gained some recognition as a singer herself, but what started as assisting her brother’s hobby, led ultimately to the award of a gold medal from The Royal Astronomical Society. She was the only woman to be recognised with such until 1996. It’s a fascinating subject and a fantastic song.
Phillip takes the lead voice for Thirty Miles, a song rooted in the days of slavery in the southern USA. The deceptively simple ditty, just voice guitar and fiddle, once again demonstrates their musical alignment and the almost minimalist restraint and subtlety of the playing creates a unique atmosphere. As does the chatturangui, an Indian slide guitar that Phillip uses to cast another unique spell over Last Broadcast, a moving homage to Marie Colvin, the reporter killed in the Syrian warzone, which uses some of her last copy to heart rending effect. It makes the solemnly atmospheric Dobro instrumental Elegy a fitting follow up, although it is actually more personal to Phillip.
If Whitsun Dance retains an air of melancholy and the theme of war through this middle part of the CD, it’s also a gorgeous song. Learnt from Shirley Collins the lyrics were written by her husband at the time John Austin Mitchell in the late 60s. It tells of the folk dances being kept alive by the village women in memory of lost husbands, fiancés and loved ones, who fell in action during WWI. Such was the devastation wrought on so many communities that without the women adapting the dances that would normally have been performed by their men folk, many of them would have faded into obscurity and disappeared altogether. Hannah’s voice is just about perfect here, making this one of the standout songs, with the backdrop once again hazily atmospheric, with bowed vibraphone and subtle washes of chatturangui.
The war theme continues on through The Banks Of The Nile, which despite it’s Napoleonic setting still resonates today. The addition of The Sportsman’s Hornpipe tagged onto the front makes the effect of the song all the more poignant, as you imagine a final fling before the ranks muster for the conflict overseas. There is more exceptional Dobro work from Phillip, but once again this song stands out by giving Hannah another chance to show off her considerable vocal talents.
Miss Wilmott’s Ghost is another reflective song, built around the wonderful guerrilla gardening tactics of the titular Victorian, Ellen Wilmott. Another woman pioneer, she was a renowned horticulturalist who came to have some 60 plus plant varieties named after her or her house, Warley Place, also being the very first recipient of the Victoria Medal Of Honour. The ghost in this case refers to her apparent practice of visiting other people’s gardens and where she perceived a deficiency of the plant display, scattering a few seeds. These unexpected blooms became known as her ghost. It’s a charming idea taken as a metaphor for what we can leave each other when we depart.
Things take a turn for the slightly sinister in Waterland, telling the story of the reclaiming of the fen lands largely as part of a land grab by the wealthy. Dutch dykers were brought in and many people displaced leading to the mysterious disappearance of some of the itinerant workers. Another unresolved disappearance surfaces in Silver Box as Anna Charlier and Nils Strindberg were eventually reunited posthumously after the latter’s Arctic expedition was subsumed by the ice and snow. Anna waited for years for the return of her fiancé, before eventually emigrating from Sweden to New York. There she married, but after the discovery of the remains of her erstwhile lover were found, she left instruction in her will for her heart to buried with Nils. Anna’s instructions were duly followed some 20 years after his body was discovered.
The album climaxes in stunning style with a version of James Taylor’s [You Can] Close Your Eyes from his Mud Slide Slim… album. It gives Phillip a chance to show off another Dobro tour de force, with Hannah and Adam Boys adding their voices to his lead. It’s a fitting finale to a wonderful record, full of the kind of attention to the little details that make for many happy hours of exploration. Beautifully crafted and quite unique it is the work of a duo at the top of their game. Mynd is Old English for memory, remembrance, record, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind and intellect. It satisfies every facet of that extended definition, but is also music to take to your heart.
Review by: Simon Holland
Mynd is released on Dragonfly Roots 9 Sep 2013