It was probably always likely to be that eventually Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen would collaborate, after all they have known each other for some 20 years, with a mutual appreciation of folk music’s vital legacy matched with admiration for each others boundless musicality. In the end it was a chance to tour together, which not only thrilled audiences, but also created recording opportunities, both on stage and at conveniently sited studios on route. The results then come together as Bottle and those that saw them play will doubtless know roughly what to expect. For those that didn’t, there’s the first time thrill to be had, but either way this is a great record, as accomplished and surprising as you might expect from two of the folk world’s most complete musical talents.
Whilst Tim is slightly the older and made an earlier start by a couple or three years, you could say that he and Eliza have been ploughing a parallel course, albeit separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but each in their own way revolutionising folk music and the way it is perceived, with a series of groundbreaking recordings since the early 90s. Both have followed an idiosyncratic line, far from purist, yet equally serious, respectful and utterly committed to exploring the tradition and repurposing it for their own ends, in the way that generations have undoubtedly done so before them. In their turn they have also won respect, deserving the plaudits of peers, music lovers, critics and the wider establishment, with genuine innovation, based on a strong foundation of real appreciation for the heritage they draw on and what that means – connecting to the past, making it personal, but for the greater good and common cause.
Hell, Eliza even has the MBE if you want to get into the weights and measures of awards and recognition. But there are also countless Folk Award nominations and triumphs, both on her own and with the family, plus no less than two Mercury prize nominations for Red Rice in 98 and four years later, Anglicana. Even long-term, the latter will almost certainly stand up as one of the most important and influential albums of the early part of the new century, much as it does now. Then there’s the work she’s done with Imagined Village, the free-ranging celebration of Britain’s multi-culturalism that should be beamed at maximum volume into each and every UKIP meeting, preferably at a volume that makes heads explode. Add to that her own original albums, proving that she’s as good a writer as interpreter.
Of course not all of that will suit everyone. She’s ruffled feathers, perhaps taking her Dad’s maxim that something that is preserved is a pickle rather than folk music, to some sort of logical, although simultaneously erudite conclusion. You can sense her desire to confound expectations. A twist, a turn, a change of gear, follow if you will, because if you don’t, it’s your loss. Notably, Eliza’s biography and career spanning retrospective delight in the tile Wayward Daughter, yet who in all honestly can refute her right to do as she feels and take music where she will? Only a latter-day Canute.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, Tim Eriksen has sealed his credentials as a serious student of folk music of all stripes with an MA and PHD in ethnomusicology, turning from researcher and collector into professor. Tim studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but really made his musical mark in and around the Boston and Northampton area of Massachusetts, as a founder member of the wonderfully named Cordelia’s Dad in the late 80s. That band made their recording debut at the start of the 90s, combining the rich, fuzzed-up romp of local legends Dinosaur Jr. with a selection of songs that came almost entirely from the American folk tradition.
Of course things didn’t remain one dimensional, Cordelia’s Dad became more acoustic and Tim’s output, over the course of 10 albums with the band, and half a dozen or so under his own name have established a varied sonic palate. Overall though Tim has been admired here and in America for his instrumental skills and singing, but also putting his knowledge of shape-note, Sacred Harp and international folk styles to good use, consulting on film soundtracks and beyond. Like Eliza, Tim has also developed his own writing, while pushing his musical boundaries into jazz and Indian classical music – jouant sans frontièrs, if you will.
The opening of Bottle is as exciting as is surprising, as Eliza and Tim begin their adventures in America, with Buffalo, giving Eriksen a chance to reprise his band days with a brutally distorted guitar. Eliza’s fiddle typically skips around the tune, leading a merry dance in the breakdowns, while a bass drum sets up a tricky rhythm. It’s sung as a duet and it’s sentiments of plenty, with grain, sugar, fish and more to be had by all, are given a rather brutal twist with the casual suggestion of killing the Native American’s and hunting Buffalo, almost in the same breath. As Eliza’s sleeve notes suggest, “We like to think of it as a nineteenth century Tourist Board advertisement for Ohio,” which is actually pretty accurate. Collected by Vaughan Williams, it was a popular broadside, particularly in London, fuelled by émigré dreams.
As Eliza’s note also suggest they like to juxtapose the opener with Logan’s Lament, to redress the balance. It’s a song that came to Tim seemingly through a series of serendipitous events and the story involves a real Native American, known as John Logan, whose family were murdered at the Yellow Creek massacre in Ohio. While much of the detail is disputed, Logan’s retaliation apparently led to Dunmore’s War, a wider conflict, while the song derives its title from a speech allegedly delivered at the eventual peace summit. The heavy overtones of Tim’s guitar here add to the sense of drawn out grief and again they sing it together, although Eliza leads out.
Castle By The Sea find’s Tim swapping to acoustic guitar and very well he plays it too, he also sings it, with Eliza trademark fiddle weaving around the melody and adding harmony. The song is a bit of an oddity, being collected in America by Lena Bourne Fish in New Hampshire. Really it’s a fairly straight reading of The Outlandish Knight, Child Ballad number four, or Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight as it’s sometimes known. As Tim’s note’s wryly point out, there aren’t many castles in the Boston area, but then why let that spoil a good story.
With that last song having got us to the coast, it’s time to set sail. Of course, sea songs have a habit of not turning out well, except perhaps in some of the more ribald, or simply workaday shanties, and so it is with Cats And Dogs, although as Eliza’s notes suggest it’s Fluffy and Fido who are in mortal peril here.
A ship is becalmed and once the cat and dog have been eaten, lots are drawn and it falls on one man to sacrifice himself to save the starving crew. Luckily he insists on one last scan of the horizons and another ship is spotted. Tim’s electric guitar adds to the sense of drift and listlessness, as Eliza sings and plucks at her fiddle, with Tim joining with his harmony for the second half.
By contrast May Song, which Eliza and Tim take a cappella is a celebration of the change of the seasons, while throwing in a little of Easter’s religious sentiment too. We stay with the church too, The Prodigal Son, two examples of Sacred Harp, combined here. Despite Tim’s advice that you won’t find any electric guitars at your average singing session, he none the less plugs in and amps up again, also leading the vocals.
We’re back at sea for Sweet Susan, which as Eliza notes, could be taken as just a good old fashioned weepie, but fits with a series of songs, in which sailors try to convince themselves that if they perish at sea, their loved ones, back at home, will similarly expire of a broken heart. The title track is a rather more cheerful exploration of love, with its jaunty bass drum and handclap rhythm and a snaking banjo line that almost sounds like a sitar in places. Here a young maid succumbs to temptation, but Eliza allows her the unusual privilege of enjoying it.
The odd atmospherics add an otherworldly feel to 10,000 Miles. Tim returns to his acoustic guitar, which none the less has a hint of overdrive and joins Eliza for the choruses in this tale of lovers parting, albeit with the promise of return. There’s no prospect of homecoming for The Whitby Lad, as the transport ship awaits and he rues the wrong turns he’s made. It’s a good old fashioned morality tale with Eliza’s dancing fiddle ducking and diving around Tim’s banjo, as she once again leads the song out.
Tim has written a tune for Sailors Wedding, here linked with the tune The Swiss Boy. By his estimation the tune is both catchy and unsingable, although he confounds the latter assertion by singing it with aplomb, despite the slippery rhythm, which threatens to trip things up. The duo have great fun with the tune and again Tim’s acoustic guitar is superb. The Traveller then returns us to Sacred Harp and once again amps things up and as a final sonic shift Love Farewell concludes in two part a cappella harmony, with a song that Eliza sang in the run up to the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.
Eliza has explained that her friendship with Tim has survived down the years, despite the often vast distance between them. Long periods of silence have been occasionally punctuated with a card, a note, a tape, a CD and so on. Perhaps this then is the message in the Bottle that has sailed that ocean divide back and forth, or the strong liquor that has been opened and shared on previous get-togethers, fuelling many a late night’s musical revelry. Either way it’s one Atlantic crossing that has worked out rather well and as special relationships go, this one is the real deal.
Review by: Simon Holland
Also listen to our premiere of the the title track Bottle here.
ELIZA CARTHY & TIM ERIKSEN ‘BOTTLE’ TOUR 2015
21 May – Edinburgh House Concert, EDINBURGH
22 May – ARC, Stockton Arts Centre STOCKTON ON TEES
23 May – Hexham Gathering, Queen’s Hall, BARDON MILL
24 May – Waterdale, DONCASTER
25 May – Fruit, HULL
26 May – Guildhall Arts Centre GRANTHAM
27 May – The Live Room, Caroline Street Social Club, SALTAIRE
28 May – The Met, BURY
29 May – St Pancras Old Church, LONDON
30 May – Chipping Norton Theatre, CHIPPING NORTON
31 May – National Centre for Early Music, YORK
Bottle is Out 18th May on Navigator Records
Pre-Order via Proper Music