Since emerging from the Edinburgh session scene of the late ’90s Malinky have become the go-to group for traditional Scots song. Far Better Days is their eagerly anticipated fifth release, the last being in 2008 (Flower & Iron), which sees them upholding the standards they’ve previously set. Taking its title from the lines within Burn’s song Lady Mary Ann, Far Better Days provides a tastefully creative interpretation of traditional songs of Scotland and Northern Ireland; as well as exploring more recent compositions. Between its members, the band holds substantial knowledge of folklore and traditional songs. As ever this is reflected in the rich and varied content of this release which also finds Mike Vass and Mark Dunlop back on board and Donald Shaw on production duties.
As well as marking ten years since Fiona Hunter joined the band this album highlights her competence in carrying forward the legacy of her predecessor Karine Polwart. She takes vocal lead on the opening Tarves Parish, a ploughman’s song from Aberdeenshire. Her voice is perfectly weighted to captivate and tell a story but never remotely heavy, a fine combination which makes for comfortable listening. The Brisk Young Lad tells a particularly playful tale of failed attempts to charm due to a greater interest in bakery than the narrating woman herself. The song appears in Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs as published in 1776 by David Herd of Laurencekirk and its wistful lyrics are teamed with responsive and uplifting accompaniment, with Vass fiddling seamlessly, shifting between the roles of melodic lead and accompanist. The songs of Scotland’s North East are further represented later in the album. Another deriving from the Grieg Duncan collection, Term Time, provides a Glaswegian twist of the Broomielaw with accompaniment this time somewhat more melodic and bound subtly to the lyrics words with just enough spark as not to interfere.
The beautifully arranged piece, The Twa Sisters sees a translation of a Swedish version of the well-kent ballad into scots sung by Steve Bryne. His steady vocals are met by layers of fiddle and whistle; these sweeter tones are complimented by sympathetic guitar and grounded by the earthy sound of Fiona’s cello. A lesser-known song from Angus, the home place of Steve Bryne – Bonnie Braes – was collected during his work on the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches archive digitisation project. The track features a tale of unrequited love deriving from the singing of William Milne of Kirriemuir (1873-1956) and features more fitting simplistic accompaniment, with vocals underpinned only by guitar picking for the mainstay of the piece.
Mark Dunlop also nods toward his Antrim roots with two charming renditions of songs derived from Sam Henry’s Songs of the People collection. The Fairy King’s Courtship, a song collected from E.J. Bennett of Coleraine, features Mike Vass’ tune Baby Iris which creates a mellow, sentimental sound. Dunlop’s tells an Irish version of the Nancy Whisky tale on Long Cookstown, a song also from the Sam Henry collection, on which his spirited vocals are backed by uplifting and incredibly light melodic accompaniment.
A personal highlight is the stirring rendition of Son David, deriving from a fratricide ballad made famous by Jeannie Robertson and passed onto Fiona Hunter by Andy Hunter. The entire group carry the Mother’s voice predominantly in the narrative with a developing vocal harmony which is met by Hunter’s emotive replies. Producer Donald Shaw also appears on the track, accompanying the voices and augmenting the chilling atmosphere on the harmonium – which notably had once belonged to iconic Scottish humourist, poet and songwriter Ivor Cutler. The penultimate and perhaps most tragic verse features a particularly moving moment where all voices sing hauntingly rich harmonies in a cappella, over the repeated words ‘bottomless boat’.
The following track comprises a set of songs opening with a brisk performance of The Moss o’ Burreldale lead by Steve Bryne; followed by Burns interpretation of the ‘Bonnie laddie’s lang a-growin theme’ led by Fiona Hunter and known as Lady Mary Ann. The remainder of the band bring the story to life with light and uplifting accompaniment, featuring intricate guitar parts with an enchanting clarsach–like quality.
The Wild Geese is the third song of Angus within the album and has become something of an anthem for the county. The song features a dialogue with the wind, reflecting upon a journey from the North. The nostalgic lyrics are decorated by delicate guitar work with low-end support coming from subtle layers of fiddle, cello and whistle; a heart-warming combination which closes the album with an air of nostalgia. With sights firmly set on preserving songs of their respective native traditions, the band have struck a perfect balance in retaining authenticity whilst remaining innovative and fresh in their approach to arrangement. This is an album of timeless quality that will call you back time and time again.
Review by: Alice Tait
The Term Time (Live at TradFest Edinburgh)
The Bonnie Hoose o Airlie (Live at TradFest Edinburgh)
FRI 03 JUL – Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival
FRI 16 OCT – Stonehaven Folk Club, Community Centre, Bath Street, Stonehaven, AB39 2DH
TUE 01 DEC – Star Folk Club, The Admiral, 72A Waterloo Street, Glasgow G2 7DA
Photo Credit: Thomas Gavin