Ahead of the release of her second solo album Light The Boats last autumn, multi-instumentalist and singer/songwriter Gill Sandell embarked on a brief UK tour to preview some of the new material. Accompanying her on the road were Anna Jenkins (backing vocals, violin, percussion) and Jo Silverston (backing vocals, cello, percussion) – two of her bandmates from Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo – and Ted Barnes (backing vocals, guitars, ukelele). Having caught the band’s performance at the album launch in Camden it was evident that the material and the interplay between the musicians had combined to create something quite special.
I hoped at the time that a more permanent record of the music would follow – and with the release of The Sickle Swing EP I’m delighted to find that my wish been granted. In February this year, Gill, Anna, Jo and Ted returned to Sickroom Studios in Norfolk for a live, direct-to-tape session to capture the essence of the live shows. Rather than try to reproduce the album versions note-for-note, the band have opted for reworkings which remain true to the spirit of the originals while allowing the songs themselves to bloom and grow.
The first track, Sickle Swing, encapsulates this evolution. Gone are the footsteps and sickle samples that helped create the song’s atmosphere on the record, as is the cavernous bass – and yet the sense of foreboding is as present in this new version as ever. Taken at a slightly faster pace with Ted’s electric guitar picking out the rhythm, Anna and Jo’s strings billow like smoke over the stubble fields. The murmured counting sequences are brought into focus by being higher in the mix and the dark heart of this song is captured perfectly.
Fingers And Toes is a long-established live favourite and has come a long way since its appearance on Gill’s first album, Tarry Awhile, in 2010. The original, gently reflective lullaby has grown into a confident anthem in which Gill’s reverb-swathed fingerstyle playing interlocks with Ted’s hypnotic rhythm guitar while Anna and Jo’s sweet call-and-response harmonies plant the chorus so deeply into your head that you find yourself humming it for days.
In contrast, Wide-Eyed Wandering which, in the studio, took on the form of a de-constructed sea shanty complete with wave samples, flute and a swirling harp, reappears here as an impressionistic siren song. Underpinned by Jo’s cello and embroidered with some delicate hammered dulcimer playing by Ted, it’s an exquisite oasis of calm, a postcard in watercolours from a lost childhood.
There have been many songs about leaving, but it’s rare to hear one that captures the moods of departure as accurately as Distance. Gill’s lyrics encapsulate both the doubts and the certainties of taking the road less travelled, while the strings soar like larks ascending and the vocal interplay between Gill and Ted leads into a breathtakingly lovely coda.
Perhaps the most radical transformation occurs in Sparkle Eyes. The stroke of genius which elevates this complex song to the standout track of the EP lies in its musical arrangement, specifically in the use of Anna’s finger-clicks and Jo, Ted and Gill’s hand percussion on their instruments to carry the rhythm. It’s a simple technique, but it both carries and drives the song along behind the controlled anger of the lyric and the catharsis hinted at by Jo and Anna’s harmonies. Possessed of an almost primal power and intensity, Sparkle Eyes is a stunningly good showcase of Gill’s maturity as a lyricist, arranger and writer.
The EP closes out with Will I Lose My Love? (another song from Tarry Awhile) and after the fieriness of Sparkle Eyes, this gentle tale of the hopes and fears of new-found love brings us softly back to earth. The quiet interplay between the guitars maintains the focus while Jo and Anna’s strings wave like flags in the morning breeze behind the lush harmonies.
With The Sickle Swing EP, Gill Sandell has created a solution to the dichotomy of rearranging studio recordings for the live stage which is both elegant and creatively successful, exposing the essence and beauty of the songs while remaining respectful to the emotional core of the originals. The Sickle Swing EP offers a vivid snapshot of one of the UK’s finest contemporary folk groups in top form and is an essential and very welcome addition to Gill Sandell’s impressive back catalogue.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Order it here: gillsandell.bandcamp.com/album/the-sickle-swing-ep