With British Summertime just started I’m feeling a little sceptical. The dusting of snow on the hills is still regularly refreshed and darkness still creeps into the evening walk long before I’m ready to give up the light. However – I’ve just re-discovered summer in the form of Ash Hunter’s debut album Rural Music. If ever there was a breath of sunshine enclosed in album, it’s here.
Ash is from Knutsford in Cheshire, writing and singing songs about his rural upbringing with a sincerity that can often seem too rare in today’s music. Rural Music is brim-full of gentle memories, hopes and dreams delivered using the most engaging song writing, loveable melodies and an impressive fingerpicking guitar style.
In Rural Music, songs that must be a delight to hear performed live are given a rich, textured studio outing, thanks in no small part to Norman McLeod’s colourful production. A host of guest musicians work along with Ash & Norman to create a depth of sound that’s immediately apparent as the album opens with May Day. Mellow and sleepy, the song drifts through Ash’s vocal, impossibly cheerful and sombre at the same time. Norman McLeod’s slide guitar adds a subtle contrast here and proves to be an equally subtle, and important, aspect of the whole album.
The English summer is celebrated in various guises – Grand England takes us on a visit to seaside. Soft accordion from Colin McLeod and vocal from Anna-Louisa Etherington on the sing-along chorus add a light summer breeze and irresistible charm. Just sit back and soak up the sunshine. Cottage by the Sea provides more dreamy seaside escapism with a rich velvety bass, slide guitar and soft symbol crashes. The seasonal vein continues in George & The Dragon, a trad jazz feel from Bob Marsh’s trumpet adds a colourful twist to this nostalgic outing.
It isn’t often you hear a song in praise of British roads, but The Motorway is just that. Perhaps there’s a touch of irony hiding in in there, but you’d be hard pushed to find it. Paul Vickers provides a gorgeous slide guitar on this track and all the while there’s that soothing, sleepy guitar picking from Ash.
In England, though, Ash finds more than summer to provide contentment. Sweet Care is more of a toe tapper, but still as mellow as the quiet drone of a happy bumble bee. Sweet Care and Counting the Days together epitomise the gentle blues that very quietly permeates the whole album. This is no enforced cheeriness, though; it’s a completely natural sense of well-being from a man who clearly loves to write and perform songs.
In fact, finding any negativity in this album would be a challenge. A Man Can Change has a touch more of the philosophical about it, and the sombre cello opening of Dark Dawn (courtesy of Edith Crowe) could lead you to believe that Ash has finally dropped his mojo and embraced his moribund side. However this thoroughly refreshing song has more to do with the joy of seeing, feeling, hearing a day gently come to life than trying to break free of dusky darkness.
In closing the album, though, Postcard to Cranford sums up everything there is to admire about Rural Music with the loveliest, richest guitar of the whole album in an ode to all things Olde English.
Ash cites ‘obvious’ influences to his song writing, but these certainly don’t jump in your face, and are only obvious in the sense that there must be something out there that’s inspired this positive, quietly sumptuous music. That beautifully rounded sound is accomplished with sterling contributions from, in addition to those already mentioned, Che Beresford (drums), Ollie Collins (bass), Colin McLeod (clarinet, piano, organ, accordion), Norman McLeod (guitars, banjo, mandolin) and Bartholemew Mason (violin).
Rural Music is a collection of songs that exudes contentment. Absorbing lyrics, eloquent story-telling and a thoroughly engaging sound create enough sunshine to thaw those snowy hilltops. Seek out this album, and get your summer off to a good start. You won’t regret it.
Review by: Neil McFadyen