According to legend, Tissø Lake in Denmark was formed when a man carrying a letter given to him by a troll opened the tiny envelope only to find that it had been magically filled with an entire lake’s worth of water, water that had been meant to submerge the local church. Luckily the curiosity of the man delivering the letter got the better of him and he opened the letter in open countryside, unaware of what it contained.
Now, there are a couple of things you can take away from a story like this. Firstly, curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat. Often it is a good thing. And secondly, the smallest, most unassuming packages sometimes contain the biggest surprises. It is wise to bear this in mind when listening to The Hollow Wood And Wondrous Cold, the latest record by Tissø Lake (aka Ian Humberstone). It was originally released eight years ago as a US-only CD but has thankfully been given another chance with some lavish vinyl and a complete remastering. It is being made available alongside a more recent recording, the 7” Carnival/Canter single, recorded in 2012/2013 with Robin Spottiswoode on violin and drums.
The Witches Are All Hung opens with droney woodwind and proceeds through soft drums, occasional piano plinks and quietly insistent acoustic guitar. Humberstone’s vocal delivery is eccentric but warm, befitting the song’s atmosphere of subdued pagan folkiness. The jauntier tune of Tore Sparrow belies a typically dark tale of drowning and swimming. In fact, the overriding feel of the record is perhaps unsurprisingly watery, with each short song resembling a clear, dark pool or a mist-wreathed woodland stream. In this way, the album deals with the vastness of nature without shirking human concerns: ‘Like a lake I am unending… and like a lake I am cold’ Humberstone sings in I Am Like A Lake.
Throughout, the damp, spectral mood is kept up by the muted instrumentation and Humberstone’s understated voice. The Lady To Her Guitar is the closest thing to a traditional-sounding folk song, and even this has a pleasing DIY quality to it. On The Night Air the sounds of the studio creep through and haunt the song while the piano in Like The Lake gives the impression of being played in a cold, empty room. These songs are small and unassuming but they contain a liquid power that becomes more apparent with repeated listens, revealing layers of meaning and unexpected musical depths. Like the lake in the envelope, it transcends its exterior and holds moments of genuine surprise.
The more recent single continues on much the same lines, but the recording is crisper, and the songs airier. This is partly down to Spottiswoode’s striking violin, which propels the jumpy instrumental Canter and soars on Carnival, in which the narrator takes the form of a raven. It provides an excellent companion-piece to The Hollow Wood And Wondrous Cold, whilst showcasing another side of this excellent and often overlooked artist.
Review by: Thomas Blake