It may be an obvious point, but the title here is particularly pertinent as this CD celebrates a decade of being, as Emily Smith puts it, “A full time folky!” Strictly speaking she celebrated the passing of this milestone last year, having turned professional after winning BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year towards the end of 2002. Originally, however, this collection was only ever sold at gigs, but with the growing acclaim and subsequent demand fuelled by the brilliant Traivellers Joy, released in 2011 and this year’s equally wonderful Echoes, Emily has decided that Ten Years warranted a proper release. In doing so she completes a hat-trick of fine albums and even the Emily Smith completist will have cause to dip in here for the unreleased and revisited tracks.
It’s a thoughtful collection that marries some very good examples of Emily’s own songcraft with others plucked from the tradition and brace from the pen of Rabbie Burns, which appeared on her excellent album of his songs Adoon Winding Nith. The liner notes refer to a degree of surprise for Emily in listening back to her previous albums to compile this set. As she rightly points out the focus for the artist is generally either their most recent record, or the one still to be made. The effort is always in striving forward, to improve and create something new.
If the chance to take stock threw Emily a surprise or two, in fact the real wonder is how well this collection hangs together. Whilst Emily does bring a distinctive voice to her own songs, they still dovetail so well with the traditional choices. In the latter she also invests a certain sense of herself that brings the stories to life. It probably helps that she has her partner Jamie McClennan as a constant musical as well as life companion. He’s an excellent fiddle player and guitarist, with the studio know-how to capture these recordings with consummate skill and sublime sound.
Mind you, Emily is no slouch as a musician either and her accordion and piano feature, although her voice is her main instrument. When you can sing like Emily, mind, surely that should be so. I’m sure both would claim that their skills have improved over the course of recording the songs that make up this CD. It’s only natural that playing consistently for 10 years will benefit the technique. As always, however, it’s that little X factor that makes the difference. The sympathetic arrangements and interplay, between Jamie and Emily, but also the guest musicians who lend their skills to the varied set are exemplary.
It’s there from the start and A Day Like Today encapsulates the skills and the blend of instruments and style. It’s one of Emily’s own compositions, originally from the album of the same name, but re-recorded here. The tune has a traditional air and Emily’s gorgeous voice naturally makes a virtue of her Scottish heritage, although her burr is gentle, only slipping into dialect where appropriate. Jamie’s fiddle and Emily’s accordion intertwine, with help from Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion and Matheu Watson on guitar, both of whom featured on Echoes. The line up here is completed by brother and sister, Sandy and Suzanne Butler on bass and harmonies respectively.
Two more of Emily’s own songs follow and the previously unreleased Love You Still features the same line up as above with Jamie switching to guitar. It’s a change of mood and style, but the results are no less delightful, especially with the extra layer the harmony vocal bring. Edward Of Morton, is a surprise and retains the feel of a traditional ballad, but is completely re-written by Emily. It’s a gruesome lesson in the perils of spurning the advances of your employer, especially if she’s a powerful lady with a vengeful Lord as a husband.
Silver Tassie is the first of two Burns’ compositions, the other being The Plooman. They come from the charming Adoon Winding Nith album. It’s simply recorded and voiced with Emily and Jamie joined only by bassist Duncan Lyall. Their original intention to celebrate the 250th anniversary Burns birth became slightly more involved as Emily hails from within 10 miles of his old stomping ground, setting a geographical precedent. That however quickly gave way to a selection based on the pure pleasure of the singing and the result is an optimistic selection of songs Burns wrote and collected that eschews the obvious choices.
There are also versions of two great ballads with Sweet Lover Of Mine being a version of the impossible tasking to be found in Scarborough Fair, although this is a distinct and gorgeous version in it’s own right and gained a worthy nomination in the 2012 Folk Awards. May Colven is another brilliant version, this time of the song probably best known under the title Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight. It’s given a folk-rock drum track and features some nifty guitar, but it’s Emily’s vocal that seals this as a great performance. The song’s origins and allegory are also well worth a five minute exploration. Fascinating stuff! ( see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Isabel_and_the_Elf_Knight)
There are also two tracks that focus first on Emily and then on the combined instrumental skills that she shares with Jamie. Corncrake Among The Winnie Knowes is a wonderful title and a simply stunning a cappella, while Jonathan’s Waltz concentrates on Emily’s accordion allied with Jamie’s guitar and fiddle. In it’s own way, it’s just as impressive as the vocal tracks. There’s another instrumental as one of two bonus tracks, although the punningly titled Bridgeridoo Set is a live recording and ups the fun quotient, along with the gospel tinged Glory Bound plucked from The Wailin’ Jennys Firecacker album.
It’s the mid section of the album and three of Emily’s compositions that warrant the most attention, however. Audience Of Souls was apparently written after a visit to a local graveyard, but also after Emily returned To Dumfries and Galway to live. It’s a complex piece and as good a song as you’ll get. Butterfly changes the mood completely with a tune that seems to mimic the flitting, bright hues and giddy lightness of the nectar drinker. Possibly the most emotive, however, is Always A Smile that tells the story of her Polish grandmother with affection and a fine eye for detail.
It all adds up to a great record and one that fits into a catalogue that stands up well against some great music coming out of Scotland at the moment. What’s more, despite the obvious backward glance that it encompasses, there is the progressive feel of an artist who started very well and has just got better. Whether tackling the tradition head on, adding her own re-writes into the folk process, or realising her own compositions with such skill, this is an impressive collection of songs. Here’s to the next decade and the treasures to come from Emily yet, Ten Years sets the benchmark very high indeed.
Review by: Simon Holland
Ten Years is released today (23 June).
Tour Dates 2014:
23rd – 25th Jun – Glasgow ‘Footprints’ Dance Project @ The Cottier Chamber Project
27th Jun – Isle of Gigha Music Festival
26th Jul – The Wickerman Festival, Dundrennan
11th – 16th Aug – ‘Footprints’ Dance Project, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
25th Oct – Perthshire Amber Festival, Blairgowrie Town Hall, Blairgowrie
26th Oct – Castle Menzies, Weem, nr Aberfeldy