Ewan McLennan is someone that FRUK has been following since he first emerged on the scene in 2010. He’s proved consistently impressive, scooping a couple of key awards over the course of his first two albums for Fellside Records. Each of Ewan’s albums has built around a keen social conscience and revisiting themes that put the common man and folksong to the fore, allied with some stunning musicianship and a sublime delivery that positions him amongst the genre’s musical elite. With the release of Stories Still Untold he’s rewritten the rule book again, to breathtaking effect. This is a absolutely stunning record that for any fan of folk music is in the ‘must own’ category. Just be warned hearts will be broken and tears will be shed, but the sorrows are oh so sweet and the greatest comes when the final note is struck.
Looking back over the coverage that Ewan McLennan has enjoyed on Folk Radio, there’s a delightful moment in an interview given to Neil McFayden (read it here) around the release of his previous album, The Last Bird To Sing, in which he describes horrifying a music tutor by adding blue notes to Chopin. Ewan’s estimation that it improved on the original was never going to meet with approval and it simply isn’t the done thing. It was one of the factors, however, that added to a mounting sense of frustration with the strictures of that musical form, which ultimately caused him to cast around for a broader form of expression that served him better.
Classical music’s loss, therefore, as you suspect it undoubtedly is, became folk music’s gain. Having carved himself a square peg, Ewan set about constructing the marriage of melody, harmony, history, story telling and allegory that gave a perfect fit for his vision. Over the course of three albums, Ewan has added steady increments to the empirical proof of the wisdom of his choice, to the point that the newly released Stories Still Untold puts him at the very forefront of British folk, as one of its most complete and compelling performers.
Ewan still pays tribute to classical music for giving him the disciplines and a solid basis on which to work with music in general. Perhaps that’s a sign of the mindset and temperament that has seen him assiduously grasp the folk tradition and marry it to his own songcraft. The two facets of his music are treated with an equanimity, which is empowering, a symbiosis of the old and new creating a seamless blend. As that interview also reveals he grew up with singing in the family, much of it centred around Scottish folksong in particular, so perhaps there has always been a blurring of the lines in Ewan’s musical growth. But the sleeve notes also point to an immersion into folk music inspired by principals and a distinctive point of view as much as any musical merit.
In the notes for Stories Still Untold he talks about the organic perspective of building from the roots upwards. Ewan quotes the American activist, singer and storyteller Utah Phillips talking about the hopes and fears, toils and troubles of ordinary folk as, “A history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate and ultimately more useful than the best damn history book that I ever read.” In the notes for the track Henry Joy, he takes that thought process another step quoting the Irish song collector Frank Harte’s assertion that, “Those in power write the history, while those that suffer write the songs.” Unsurprisingly then, there is a strong thread of social commentary running through Ewan’s work and at very least, a sense that everything is done for a purpose, even if that purpose is but the sheer pleasure of it.
If there’s a sense that Ewan is still growing into his role as one of the UK’s finest singer songwriters, you also have to acknowledge that he emerged pretty much fully formed. Ewan only made his debut on the gig circuit in 2010, but was almost immediately picked up by the ever astute Fellside Records, a label with an enviable track record of spotting and nurturing exceptional young talent. The debut album Rags & Robes none the less proved an impressively strong statement and led to Ewan winning the Horizon newcomers’ category at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the start of 2011. The Last Bird To Sing built on his strong start and also won Ewan further recognition with the Alistair Hulett Memorial Prize for Political Songwriting. In the process Ewan has worked with and learnt from Dick Gaughan and Martin Simpson, while also being invited to join the Transatlantic Sessions last year, fitting in alongside a host of international stars.
All of which naturally feeds into Stories Still Untold, his strongest set of songs yet, but an album delivered with an elegant simplicity, which is quietly deceptive. Mattie Foulds is involved, credited with recording everything bar the cello contributions from Beth Porter, which were captured by Josh Clarke. Ewan retains the producer credit, with Paul Adams of Fellside helping him with the mix. At first it all sounds subtly understated, with even Ewan’s guitar, and he is an exceptional player, there to support the songs and the stories therein. After a couple of plays through, however, the subtle textures and embellishments start to show through and make themselves felt.
The songs mix the traditional with a couple of Burns’ songs, along with some freshly minted by Ewan and with a couple of other more modern writers in the mix as well. But even where Ewan digs back, he adapts, in some cases providing a melody, either original or from another source. Most importantly the tunes fit the songs into that aforementioned seamless flow and the wider narrative of this album and the themes that he continually re-visits.
A Beggar opens up the CD, a trad song and a delightful arrangement it is too. The song itself revolves around a beggar who steals away a young lassie and is a common enough motif with numerous variants, including a close relation amongst the Child Ballads. A nifty tune, Ewan’s Scottish dialect and fluid guitar are highly suggestive of the capricious encounter and as the song unfolds, the supporting musicians, Ross Ainslie on whistle, the strings from Beth Porter’s cello and Lauren MacColl’s viola and Inge Thompson’s accordion all play their part.
There is perhaps a sense of betrayal that runs his traditional choices, although with that opener there is at least the hint that things have not gone badly. In The Shearing (actually the harvest), however, a hapless maid is left with belly too big to bend and collect the gain as a soldier makes his escape to war. Prince Robert incurs his mother’s wrath by marrying a girl against her wishes. In the great ballad tradition her solution is to poison him and invite the girl round for a good gloat, although she confounds the old hag by promptly dying of a broken heart. In this case a birk (birch – although it’s more often a rose) and briar grow from their respective graves, so the lovers are entwined from beyond the grave. It’s simply set but beautifully realised and a sublime master-class of finger style guitar as Ewan’s voice casts its spell. What False Young Man lacks in epic scale it more than compensates for in emotional reach. This Appalachian variant of the lover’s lament for an unfaithful ex and the pain of love lost, is another showcase for Ewan’s ability to find the tender ache at the heart of the song.
As wronged and spurned as the various lovers are, however, the political heartland, of the album is even harder and sedition is the watchword. He takes the words of Ernest Jones, with a couple of verses added by Bob Davenport, for The Song Of The Lower Classes. In 1848 Jones was sentenced to two years solitary confinement for his rabble-rousing public speeches, although his words still ring true. Further weight is added with strings and accordion adding a drone. The Granite Cage is another prison tale, this one written by Alister Hulett (referring back to Ewan’s previous polical songwriting award), and Dave Swarbrick. The song is about the pacifist and activist John MacLean, who spoke out against the conscription of WWI and was brutalised and broken by the prison sytem. Henry Joy is the story of a young Irish republican on the protestant side, who ultimately chose death over betraying his comrades. As Ewan says, the strength of the song is in it’s broader appeal for peace, unity and equality, or perhaps that should be, ‘Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité,’ as it was the French revolution that sparked Joy’s idealism above any nationalist streak. It also features Ewan’s banjo, which he also proves the master of.
The brace of Burns songs are unusual and Ewan makes the point that both borrow from the tradition, although as he also states the first, Aye Waulkin O is a beautiful piece. There’s a delightful lovelorn quality. It adds to the persuasive evidence that I really should spend more time with Burns, although I might have to delegate that to a future clone along with a goodly chunk of my ‘to-do’ list. Rattlin’ Roaring Willie is definitely a Burn’s adaptation of a rant about the titular Willie, who was probably a local ne’er do well, but is given a makeover to fit Burn’s boisterous associate Willie Dunbar, with the arrangement given a further boost with the viola and whistle beefing up the merry, reeling guitar lines.
Best of all are Ewan’s own songs and he hints at his own roustabout, or at very least youthfully vigorous and pub fuelled ways, days and tall tales in Out On The Banks and Tales From Deep Down At The Harp. Whilst the first of those benefits from the weight of the cello added to the mix, it offers a subtle highlight to the exquisite descending guitar runs and wheezing accordion of the latter. The seven minutes of the epic The Ballad Of Amy Nielson are the album’s fulcrum and by any set of standards and measures you’d care to offer, is one of the most moving and special songs of this year and any other for that matter. It’s a tale of proud but blighted lives and if you get to the end of it dry eyed, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
The album gets a bittersweet finish too, with a song written by Matt McGinn, who Pete Seger described as the Scottish Woody Guthrie. The lilting, soothing melody hides an edge as a miner sings Coorie Doon to his child, while his own weariness takes its toll. It has that mix of the pointed and the picturesque. It also has more of that sublime playing and singing, straight from the heart to the top of the CD play pile.
You will not hear better this year. So, unequivocal recommendation then? No, I insist.
Review by: Simon Holland
03/10/14 The Foundling Museum, London
05/10/14 Folk House, Bristol
17/10/14 The Music Institute, Guildford
18/10/14 Miss Peapod’s, Penryn
25/10/14 Glossop Labour Club
07/11/14 Korks, Otley, West Yorkshire
19/11/14 The Red Lion, Birmingham
20/11/14 Topic Folk Club, Bradford
21/11/14 Roots Music Club, Doncaster
22/11/14 Davy Lamp Folk Club, Washington
23/11/14 The Glad Cafe, Glasgow
24/11/14 Glenfarg Village Folk Club, Glenfarg
Stories Still Untold is Out Now via Fellside