There’s something about the way that O’Hooley & Tidow have developed as artists that has surely exceeded expectations. Sure, they share certain things that make them simpatico and perhaps their civil partnership adds that indefinable chemistry to their musical partnership. Yet equally and surely with each release they have produced something special, displaying notable ambition, but crucially hitting very high standards from the off. Each CD is nicely self contained, but their aspirations have grown and their song writing has matured very well indeed from the debut Silent June, through The Fragile to this latest offering, The Hum. As much as anything it’s the depth and breadth and the detail, of their subject matter, but there’s also the melodic sensibility and the scintillating arrangements. For The Hum, the duo have turned to Gerry Diver, both as producer and for his multi instrumental skills, to help bring the latest crop of songs to life. It’s another bold move and one that has paid off handsomely.
They have a shared aesthetic that creates a strong look, somewhere between playful and pointed, which places the upright, parlour piano as the central figure in their relationship. It at once displays something of the common touch, there’s nothing of the concert grand, or even baby grand, but more the workhorse of families or the pubs and clubs, albeit, a very nice one. There’s something also about the setting of two women, two voices, one piano that creates a foggy nostalgia, you can picture them entertaining the local saloon bar, or a gathering of friends and relatives at home. Yet it’s something very uncommon, especially within the context of the current folk scene. In the case of O’Hooley & Tidow, it’s actually something uncommonly good.
O’Hooley & Tidow take pleasure in reviews that describe them as, “Stunning and delightfully unconventional.” Fair enough perhaps, as the duo seem to have found their natural home with the No Masters collective of artists. To quote for the website, “No Masters, the northern-based song-writing co-operative, was formed by John Tams and Jim Boyes in 1990. It sought out writers, performers and musicians who were, in their various ways, seeking to celebrate and extend those bits of the people’s tradition invariably described as ‘radical’ or ‘political’.” Along with John and Jim, No Masters has included the late greats, Mike and Lal Waterson, plus Coope, Boyes & Simson, Jo Freya, Fi Fraser and the Fraser Sisters, Ray Hearne and Chumbawamba under its umbrella, which also marks it out as an enviable pool of musical talent.
While such lofty ideals and even idealism itself may be out of synch with the majority of the music business, it’s not where O’Hooley & Tidow and the wider No Masters collective don’t fit in, it’s where they do that is both important and the most interesting part of the story. O’Hooley & Tidow are not so much defying conventions as simply setting their own, with a sidelong glance and a gentle rewrite of what’s already there. Arguably, a well aimed pin prick at the status quo, to deflate puffed up hypocrisy is the greatest gift that a radical viewpoint can bring. Sometimes just shining a light on something from a particular angle can be enough.
Arguably it requires a certain age perspective to realise how important such vestiges of semi-mechanised, human endeavour are in a country that has had its industrial heritage torn apart, while whole communities have been torn up with it. The title track of The Hum is a prime example and inspired by neighbours account of a local house sale falling through because of the noise of a nearby factory. What didn’t suit the prospective was, as the neighbour said, actually something to take comfort from, the sound of people working. The song adds the plight of the bees and the nicotine based pesticides that damning evidence shows have exacerbated their decline. The bees are the epitome of busy and their hum is an equally essential part of our lives. There is a balance to be hit then between our productive needs and our place in nature.
It starts simply enough with Belinda’s piano and the duo’s voices in harmony. But there’s an urgency in their voices that builds towards a climactic dischord. It’s the sound of a world out of tune and as Gerry layers guitars, strings and other things into the mix, you can’t help but feel this is a bold start. Mind you it’s something they’ve done before and Flight Of The Petrel from the debut Silent June, is similarly weighty and oddly enough nicotine themed. Besides, Heidi and Belinda do enough to sweeten the pill with their delightful harmonies.
The urgency is picked up by Just A Note, with a rippling piano riff, echoed by Gerry adding first guitar and then a throbbing bass line. All of this serves to push Ewan MacColl’s homage to the navvies who built Britain’s motorways into the fast lane. The note in question is a fleeting chance to chance to scribble a few words to the wife and family back home.
Cleverly the urgency is maintained as the piano again surges and cascades, with the scrapes and swoops of strings and the bass bobbling through the homage to the brewers who have sprung up around the duo’s home in Huddersfield. Summat’s Brewing neatly lifts the line, “Oh good ale thou art my darling,” from the Copper family, but once again celebrates human industry and the revolution that has shaken up the world of real ale for the better, despite the pub closures, the high taxes and tabloid alco-pop, binge drinking sensationalism. The flipside of that is the rise of small independent breweries producing a growing choice of flavoursome ales, that are attracting many more women drinkers, including our duo it seems.
Two Mothers then changes the mood completely. The tempo drops and the tune, based on a Gaelic air, has the perfect yearning feeling for what is a song about the forced migration of children orphaned or in care. A practice that dates back to the start of the colonies, was later continued with the largely misguided belief that it gave the children a better start. In many cases the children were lied to about the fate of their parents and those simply born out of wedlock were particularly vulnerable, often meeting hardship and abuse rather than an improvement in life’s circumstances. It’s not just the UK that has adopted such a policy, but the nature of the colonies, especially Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was, saw children transplanted thousands of miles with no say in the matter.
It’s the sensitive heart of the album as Peculiar Brood, compares a mother bird with the mother of a suicide bomber and Like Horses, asks why we can’t have the strength and grace of our equine companions. Come Down From The Moor tackles Irish poverty and how its effects still linger. Moving Belinda’s Irish father Seamus to recite the duo’s poem as part of the song. The instrumentation is naturally cooler through these tracks picking out poignant lines with a subtle guitar figure or a swoop of pedal steel, mixed in with chamber strings and splashing and rumbling percussion. It’s an adventurous sonic mix, that adds depth to the songs and yet still gives the melodies the room to breathe.
The next two songs are a co-write and a cover with Coil and Spring which features words by the Chumba’s Boff Whalley about the infamous Pussy Riot protest against Putin. The band is pleasingly given the role of an unheavenly choir and a spanner in the works, linking them back to the noise and the machinery of the hum. Ruins By The Shore is a Nic Jones song, something of a rarity in fact, but Belinda’s part in the recent revival of the singer/guitarists profile means that O’Hooley & Tidow will have been explicitly aware of Nic’s instructions that if you take anything of his, make it your own, which this recording succeeds in doing spectacularly well.
That just leaves the finale piece, although ‘just’ seems the wrong word there, as the evocative and utterly magical Kitsune weaves the Japanese legend of the shape-shifting fox who transforms into a human woman, into a classic outsiders tale. Be it the much put upon and persecuted fox or the asylum seekers of today, the parallels are drawn. Musically it’s expansive and Gerry makes much of the opportunities to work inherent drama in the way that the words are structured. The vocal melodies rise, fall and hang suspended on his gossamer strings. It’s both beautiful and powerful and also decidedly 21st Century, having as much to do with sonic experimentalism and modern production values as it does the folk traditions.
Like other fusions of styles that we’ve covered here it creates its own rules and its own space, but really The Hum is all about the songwriting. Even if not all of the contents are obvious, and some are more oblique strokes than stories, there is great value to be found in The Hum. It may be the sound of the world around us, at times just so much noise pollution and sometimes we crave the off button and peace and serenity. But like anything, if you pay close attention and get the balance right then you can here the sounds of the sounds of the world we have made, but also the sounds our place within it. Man and woman placed on an equal footing, free of the prejudices and fears that snare and bind us, working in harmony with nature, just think how productive that might be.
Review by: Simon Holland
01 LANCASHIRE Archives
14 CHELTENHAM Folk Festival
22 HULL Ropery Hall
06 KENDAL Brewery Arts Centre
07 NEWCASTLE The Cluny 2
08 HUDDERSFIELD Marsden Mechanics
12 YORK National Centre for Early Music
13 BURY The Met
14 NOTTINGHAM Glee Club
15 MILTON KEYNES The Stables
16 PETERBOROUGH Folk at The Key Theatre
19 BIRMINGHAM Red Lion Folk Club
20 ALDERSHOT West End Centre
21 BRISTOL Folk House
27 EXETER Folk Project
28 LEWES Union Music
29 BRIDPORT Arts Centre
31 LONDON St Pancras Old Church
05 BROSELEY Birch Meadow Centre
26 OXFORD Folk Weekend
09 CHESTERFIELD Folk Club
23 SWANSEA Chattery
24 MACHYNLLETH Museum of Modern Art
27 GLASGOW Live at The Star Folk Club
30 SKYE Red Roof Gallery Cafe
03 PENICUIK Folk Club
07 DUNTON Folk
20 NETHERLANDS Roots aan de Zaan
21 NETHERLANDS De Lantern
22 NETHERLANDS Roots aan de Zaan
18 CUMBRIA Music on the Marr