As well as its obvious topological and agricultural connotations, ‘furrow’ can also refer to a deep wrinkle of skin, particularly on the forehead. This in turn makes us think of age and wisdom, and as such it is a fitting name for a group of musicians who have assembled a collection of songs full of ancient truths and sagacity. The Furrow Collective consists of Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts, four artists already well known to each other and well respected throughout the folk music community.
These kinds of narrative songs represent intriguing, often universal takes on oral histories, and so are meant to be shared, expanded and reinterpreted. It is immediately apparent that the Collective are entirely comfortable in each other’s musical and lyrical company. Their roomy, sometimes improvisational interplay creates new and exciting landscapes for timeworn ballads. Wild and Wicked Youth is a fairly familiar song, a kind of highwayman’s anthem from beyond the grave, but with Roberts singing the second vocal it seems to take on a beguiling moral murkiness.
The clarity of Portman’s vocal performance on King Henry is a disquieting counterpoint to a supernatural tale of mass animal slaughter and necrophilia, with a curiously happy ending. The story has a moral, and the moral appears to be this: if a horse-eating ghost comes to your castle at night, make sure you go to bed with her.
But it is the musicianship on At Our Next Meeting that really elevates it above standard traditional fare. Despite the obvious individual talents of the players, we are never assailed by overbearing virtuosity. Instead the arrangements are full of space, full of sympathetic ensemble playing. The choice of instruments is unusual but inspired – viola, saw and banjo are prominent, as well as Newton’s harp, Portman’s concertina and Roberts’ distinctive acoustic guitar, at once deliberate and delicate. The latter only adds to the timeless quality of a song like Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather. It remains faithful Jean Redpath’s definitive version whilst positively affirming its relevance.
The album is full of the grime and the crime of folk balladry. It is territory that Roberts is well-acquainted with. His collection of traditional material Too Long In This Condition contains songs about maritime treachery, anti-Semitism and baby murder, and here The Outlaw Of The Hill certainly reasserts his proclivity for the darker side of folk song.
But At Our Next Meeting is not all doom and gloom. The rousing Hind Horn takes a jauntier angle, the whole cast contributing to the refrain. Hind Horn is the first of an impressive triptych of thematically linked songs. The second is Handsome Molly, which bears a less positive message: where Hind Horn tells the story of a lover’s triumphant return, Handsome Molly’s protagonist is jilted and wishes only for escape. The story is cleverly continued by Our Captain Calls (a simple, affecting reading of the song much closer to Shirley Collins’ version than Steeleye Span’s).
Demon Lover, probably the most well-known song here, is given a minimalist makeover that more than justifies its inclusion, complete with ghostly sounds and Newton’s ascending, shimmering harp. The scolding Scottish temperance song Johnny My Man is a vehicle for Roberts’ characteristic vocal style, while his take on The Blantyre Explosion – the story of a Scottish mining disaster that killed 207 workers – is heartbreakingly simple.
Some kind of argument will always exist about the relevance of generations-old ballads like those on this record, but surely the fact that they still exist and are still performed is testament to their lasting significance. It is the skill of the performance that brings out the best in old songs and allows the universality of their themes to come to the fore, and there are few more skilled artists working in folk music now than the four that have combined to make At Our Next Meeting one of the finest collaborative albums of the past few years.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Released 17 Feb 2014 via Furrow Records
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Feb 19 – Cornwall at Calstock Arts
Feb 20 – Bristol at The Lantern, Colston Hall
Feb 21 – Wigton at Gilcrux Village Hall
Feb 22 – Glasgow at The Glad Cafe
Feb 23 – Edinburgh at House Concert
Feb 25 – Cardiff at Chapter Arts Centre
Feb 26 – Southport at The Atkinson
Feb 27 – Bury at The Met
Mar 28 – London at Kings Place