It’s perhaps easy to start this review with a few numbers, as this release is something of a flagship for Topic Records 75th year. It comes almost 50 years after Martin made his solo debut and 21 years since Eliza’s name first appeared as a headline on a record alongside Nancy Kerr. Their combined discography all told runs into 100s and although they have collaborated on many occasions, this is the first album to bill them as a duo. Yet as impressively as the sheer numbers stack up, it’s only a part of the story as individually and in family terms Martin and Eliza are at the heart of the story of folk music in the UK. Perhaps that’s stating the obvious, but it is a point worth making and considering afresh, especially in the light of The Moral Of The Elephant.
Martin was born in 1941 and had his first musical experience in his childhood as a chorister, but like many of his age fell under the spell of Lonnie Donegan in his teens. Picking up his father’s guitar and the influences of Big Bill Broonzy and the unique playing style of Elizabeth Cotton, Martin worked his first professional gig while still in his teens. By the early 60s he’d already established himself on the London folk scene, becoming a regular at the Troubadour. He famously influenced both the young Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, although the latter’s wholesale, unaccredited lift of Martin’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair was the source of rancour for many years.
Martin’s self titled, debut, headline recording, was released in 1965 and featured Dave Swarbrick, whose name was kept off the credits because of other contractual arrangements. By then he had already developed a well regarded signature guitar style as the original sleeve notes, written by Ian Campbell make clear. Campbell also makes the distinction of calling Martin a folksong singer rather than just a folk singer. Whilst that might be playing with semantics it does make the point that Martin’s repertoire has never strayed too far from the English, or perhaps more accurately British tradition. Campbell also calls Martin a foundation member of the contemporary folksong revival.
It was 25 years later that Eliza, still in her teens, joined her father and made her first appearance as a singer on Oranges And Lemmings, a collection of songs written by Les Barker and credited to the Mrs Ackroyd Band. Her more serious co-headliner with Nancy Kerr followed 3 years later and the first Waterson:Carthy album a year after that. Eliza has paid tribute to Nancy for encouragement and also leading the charge of their early collaboration, but her accomplishments since have eclipsed all of her contemporaries by some distance, twice being nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize and in her turn, fostering and supporting fresh young talent with a massively busy live schedule and through her many ground breaking releases.
In some ways you could regard this album as a companion piece to Gift, the album that Eliza Recorded with her mother Norma Waterson and released to considerable critical acclaim back in 2010. It netted a brace of folk awards and had something of the feel of being Norma’s swansong. She was gravely ill for a while, but since seems to have recovered enough to tour and Bright Phoebus Revisited was another notable triumph to follow. At very least, however, The Moral Of The Elephant addresses an imbalance and time will tell whether it will meet with the same level of success.
Musically it’s a match, but in contrast to Gift that featured some notable guests, including Martin along with other family members Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight, the settings are kept simple. Perhaps that reflects Martin’s preferred format, which goes back to that debut album almost 50 years ago and the guitar/fiddle partnership he developed with Dave Swarbrick. Much like Gift, the interest is in the song selection and although there’s nothing to match the light hearted choices like Ukulele Lady or Prairie Lullaby, there’s fun to be had none the less, albeit of a slightly darker and wordier kind, as they wrap their vocal chords around the finely etched details of these stories and fables.
The majority are billed as trad arr. Martin & Eliza Carthy and amongst them is The Queen Of Hearts, which featured on Martin’s debut all of those years ago. He reveals that the version that he sang then had been modified by the American singer Cynthia Gooding from whom he learnt it. Picking up the tune that the Reverend Baring Gould first collected from a navvy working on Burrator reservoir via Cyril Tawney, Martin here returns it to the original and rather haunting melody. The arrangement is simplicity itself, with the two voices in harmony and Martin’s spare guitar line supporting the melody, putting the somewhat melancholic words centre stage.
Affairs of the heart find their way into several of the songs, notably Her Servant Man, where love below stairs finally triumphs, despite the young maid’s father going the whole dungeon imprisonment route. It has the big ballad drama and makes a great opener, with Martin taking the vocals solo and once again his deceptive, unfussy yet perfectly judged guitar line and Eliza’s fiddle adding a delicious counterpoint. Happiness is a wistful meditation on the elusive, “Bird with 20 wings,” notable in that it was written by Molly Drake, Nick Drakes mother and is sung here by Eliza.
Eliza also sings Waking Dreams (Awake Awake), which she admits is a composite and something of a paean of betrayal and loneliness, a bit of a wallow, with Martin’s guitar stripped to the bones as if to create an echoing void around the words. They join together for the closing Died For Love, which is as the title suggests it should be. Movingly it’s dedicated to by Eliza to Uncle Mike as the source of their version, although he never managed to record it himself.
It’s not all false hearts and sorrows, however, with the delightful Blackwell Merry Night documenting one hell of a Cumbrian party. From straight down the M6 and M5 comes the equally delightful Queen Caraboo, a larger than life character who seems to have all and sundry under her spell and although she seems to be dismissing them as “Ready made fools” it’s not quite so clear why everyone is quite so enchanted.
The Elephant is mostly John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, with a little tinkering and music from Eliza. The moral awaits your discovery.
There are also three songs with a political edge. The Grand Conversation On Napoleon is further evidence that not all of the British were united in fighting the French Emperor and indeed many saw him as a potential liberator, a barnstormer that seems to have a special importance for Eliza as she tackles it with gusto. The Bonny Moorhen tells of strike breaking thugs who meet more than their match in the beleaguered lead miners they are sent to attack. In a neat bit of symmetry it comes from the same source as Scarborough Fair. Monkey Hair is a curious title but a powerful song written by Michael Mara, about a woman who refuses to bear any more children on account of her husband sending her sons off to war and slaughter.
The arrangements sound so simple, but you know damn well that if you or I tried it, we’d probably end up in a very eggy mess. Just in terms of the control of breathing and tempo required to bring these stories to life and make sense of their narrative flow, such skills are rarified and precious. On the surface of it this is all so deceptively straightforward, just Eliza and Martin’s voices, his sparring, minimalist guitar and her sumptuous fiddle playing, the minimum of overdubs and no star guests. But then when the results are as good as The Moral Of The Elephant what more do you need?
Review by: Simon Holland
Martin & Eliza Carthy Upcoming Tour Dates
06 – Queen Elizabeth Hall,Southbank Centre – Belvedere Road, LONDON
07 – Folkathon – Marlets Hall, BURGESS HILL, Sussex
08 – The Lantern, Colston Hall – Colston Street, BRISTOL
13 – The Met – Market Street, Bury, Lancs
14 – Brewery Arts Theatre – 122A Highgate, KENDAL, Cumbria
15 – Ludlow Assembly Rooms, – 1 Mill St,Ludlow,Shrops
21 – Beverley Folk Festival – Beverley Leisure Complex,East Yorkshire
27 – St Andrews church – Grinton, Richmond,North grinton, yorkshire
28 – The Atkinson – Lord Street, SOUTHPORT,Merseyside
29 – Brudenell Social Club – The Club House, 33 Queens Road, Hyde Park, Leeds
01 – Cambridge Folk Festival – Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds, Cambridge
02 – Cambridge Folk Festival – Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds, Cambridge
05 – Sidmouth FolkWeek – SIDMOUTH
The Moral Of The Elephant is released on 2 Jun 2014 via Topic Records
Pre-Order via Topic Records