Emily Smith Traiveller’s Joy was one of my albums of the year, although I’m currently having a hard time reconciling that it came out three years ago. In the 2012 Folk Awards she was nominated twice, but I think genuinely unfortunate to come up against June Tabor & Oysterband’s Ragged Kingdom. If you’ve been paying attention recently, you’ll know the success of that collaroration swept aside all other comers and won in the two categories Emily also appeared, albeit with a solo win for June as best singer. But any other year and it might have been different. Her Sweet Lover Of Mine is still amongst the toppermost of my folk poppermost, but now there’s a new CD, Echoes, which turns out to be the best of Emily Smith yet.
It sounds absolutely superb too. For a start it’s a great set of songs, mostly plucked from the tradition and although there are none of Emily’s originals, there are three more modern covers. Traiveller’s Joy had four of Emily’s own songs nestling in it’s running order and she has been described as Scotland’s Joni Mitchell. Although in fairness it might be a few years before any meaningful comparison can be made, it’s another measure of how well Emily is regarded. Her arrangements of traditional songs, however, are just superb, whether adding fresh melodies or finding, adapting and retelling versions of classics, the results are unfailingly distinctive.
It’s perhaps natural that Emily has immersed herself in folk music given her background, although it was folk dance that got Emily started on her musical journey. Her mother ran a dance school and so Emily found herself dancing at ceilidhs in her youth, before taking up the piano, the snare drum in a pipe band and eventually the accordion. It wasn’t until well into her teens that Emily found her voice, however, singing solo with the school choir. The first of a clutch of awards and nominations came when she won BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year back in 2002 at the age of 21. She’d moved to Glasgow in 1999 and gained an Honours degree in Scottish Music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Her principal study of Scottish Song goes some way to explaining her gift with the folk tradition.
Credit for the recording must also go to Jamie McClennan as producer and player. The New Zealander can point to his own musical history and deep rooted involvement in folk music that took root in his youth. Jamie’s parents ran a folk club and festival in Hamilton New Zealand and their home was filled with music, acting as a port of call for travelling musicians. Jamie also began a musical degree course, but didn’t finish it and instead took to the road, moving to Scotland, gaining his own reputation on the Glasgow scene before meeting Emily. Emily and Jamie have become partners in life as well as music. While his multi-instrumental abilities make him a valuable foil for Emily, I would suggest that the empathy the couple share probably gives him the edge in the producer’s role.
Emily and Jamie are joined in the core band once more by percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir although Duncan Lyall has passed on the bassists baton to Ross Hamilton. Matheu Watson on guitar and resonator is another new name, but the guests here are attention grabbing. Emily has recently been part of the Transatlantic sessions and it’s probably from that circle that Matheu makes his bow, but so do Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan, with Kris Drever, Tim Edey, Natalie Haas and Rory Butler also credited on various tracks. Emily and Jamie nonetheless have what it takes to accommodate their guests and weave them seamlessly into the fabric, without any of them dominating the overall sonic design.
Just how well this works is apparent from the first track. Kris Drever’s unmistakeable voice and Jerry Douglas a slipping and sliding on Dobro are both notable accompanists. Reres Hill is just beautifully put together and the way the instruments intertwine with Emily’s voice is quite stunning. There’s a certain gravitas with what sounds like bowed bass and/or cello and perhaps a touch of lap steel, which adds a slightly ominous tone to the tale of the young maid led astray on the back of Reres Hill. Such tales generally go badly for the hapless young damsel, but in this version it seems her fortunes are somewhat better and wedded bliss and a happy life await.
This being folk music, it doesn’t all end so well. Twa Sisters is a case in point and delights in a brisk tune and repeated motifs, “A do a dum a do a day,” “Oh the boys are bound for me,” and “I’ll be true unto my love if he’ll be true tae me,” which add to the breezy flow. Sibling jealousy, however, ensures a high body count and some brutal deaths at that. Clerk Saunders also has its share of sibling strife, this time with seven brothers protecting the honour of their sister, although against her will and again with fatal consequences. It’s also mixed blessings in King Orfeo, when the queen is overcome by an Elfin Knight and taken into the faerie world. It takes seven solitary years and a nifty tune or three on the pipes, as the king is a skilled piper, to win her back.
That trio of songs can all be found amongst the Child Ballads and also have numerous versions and variants across the wider folk tradition. Some tend to the epic like Jim Moray’s Lord Douglas, which strongly echoes the plotline of Clerk Saunders, while variants of the Two Sisters have been recorded by everyone from Bellowhead to Bob Dylan (admittedly on bootleg), via Tom Waits, but Emily brings her own distinct arrangements to each and makes them sound fresh, vibrant and newly minted. The ballads seem almost stripped back to their heart, retaining the crucial sap that feeds the story without becoming overgrown.
[pullquote]Emily Smith is simply one of the best singers out there at the moment, in fact, at least to these ears, one of the best singers full stop.[/pullquote]Key to that is Emily’s voice confirming what the various awards and nominations have been saying down the years. Emily Smith is simply one of the best singers out there at the moment, in fact, at least to these ears, one of the best singers full stop. But the sound overall is superb too, the paying throughout is deft with melodic lines criss-crossing to create an intricate weft, supporting Emily’s voice perfectly. It’s to Jamie’s credit that as producer, he’s marshalled the band so well, but individually they seem to have that sixth sense skill that binds them with uncanny taste and timing.
The song choices also play their part. As well as the murderous ballads, The Sower’s Song is beautiful and optimistically looks forward to reaping the fruits of the yearly labour. My Darling Boy, despite it’s premature death looks to the continuity of the family line and possess a tenderness that might reflect the arrival of a son in Emily and Jamie’s life. The Hawk And The Crow is another lovely song, which compares the characters and plumage of birds to the fortunes of love. As is often the case in such ornithological folk songs, the Wren seems to have the upper hand.
Of the more recent songs, Archie Fisher’s The Final Trawl is a moving paean to a lifetimes work coming to an end, with just a hint of nature depleted in the scant final catch. The Open Door shows the versatility of Darrell Scott as a song-writer as it slips into place sounding for all the world as if it’s from the same source material as the rest. It’s certainly close enough to make Scott and honorary Scot, if you know what I mean. Best of all though is the closing John O’Dreams, which adds a sense of closure to the CD. The song is written by Bill Caddick who in a neat bit of recycling, based his tune on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, The Pathetique, and that in turn is thought to have been borrowed from either a Russian or Italian folksong. However it’s constructed the song is beautifully realised and serves both as a lullaby and a wish for a peaceful passage at life’s end. A suitably moving finale.
Everything that is good about Echoes is found in this last track, but like the CDs title or the river flowing in its final verse, the good things resonate and run through the whole 40 odd minutes. It’s tempting to say it’s not complicated, the sound of mostly acoustic instruments and human voices well recorded, but we all know it’s not that simple either. Echoes is skilfully crafted and sublimely created, but it has that little bit of indefinable magic.
Echoes has started a murmur that will echo in my heart for years to come. If you could tune out the background noise for a few seconds you would hear it repeated with a steady beat up and down the land, because make no mistake this is a great record and it won’t be just me that thinks so.
Review by: Simon Holland
My Darling Boy (Official Video)
Echoes is released on February 24, 2014 via White Fall Records. You can pre-order a Ltd Autographed Edition from ProperMusic here.
Mar 06, Inverness – Eden Court
Mar 07, Dunfermline – Carnegie Hall
Mar 08, Edinburgh – The Queen’s Hall
Mar 09, Cockermouth – The Kirkgate
Mar 11, Cambridge – Junction
Mar 12, Aldershot – West End Centre
Mar 13, London – Cecil Sharp House
Mar 14, Newbury – Arlington Arts Centre
Mar 15, Pontypridd – Muni Arts Centre
Mar 16, Budleigh Salterton – The Public Hall
Mar 21, Banchory – Woodend Barn
Mar 26, Southport – The Atkinson
Mar 27, Bury – The Met
Mar 28, Fareham – Ashcroft Arts Centre
Mar 29, Didcot – Cornerstone
Mar 30, Bromsgrove – Artrix
Mar 31, Wiveliscombe – Silver Street Sessions @ Wiveliscombe Congregational Church
Apr 02, Leek – The Foxlowe Arts Centre
Apr 03, Stirling – Tolbooth
Apr 04, Castle Douglas – The Fullarton
Apr 05, Langholm – The Buccleuch Centre
For more information and for Emily’s full tour schedule visit her lovely new website: www.emilysmith.org