It’s eight years since the Australian folk duo Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton last released an album, during which time they’ve been busy raising families. However, they’ve finally found room in their domestic schedules to put together a collection of new material under the title of Declaration. Tracks were variously laid down at assorted Melbourne locations under the guiding hand of producer Luke Plumb, he of Shooglenifty fame, who also provides occasional accompaniment on mandolin and bouzouki.
Comprising two self-penned numbers (one each), six traditional tunes and three covers, it sets out to explore the contrasting themes of light and darkness with sparse (mostly just guitar and banjo) but often complex arrangements that highlight their harmonies as much as their instrumental virtuosity.
It opens with the traditional-coloured title track, the words, a testament to love through changing and challenging times. It was written by the late, little known Australian poet John Shaw Neilson with music originally by Martyn Wyndham-Read (from whose 1996 recording the pair learned it). Before proceeding to the first of the traditional numbers proper, there is a banjo led version of Katy Cruel, which, interpolating the chorus refrain from Irish ballad I Know Where I’m Going, dates from the American War of Independence and is sung in the voice of a fiercely independent woman who refuses to bow to social convention in choosing her lover. The duo’s version was inspired by recordings by both Karen Dalton and Linda Thompson, and it’s the latter who also fuelled their take on Breezin’ Blind Drunk, a woman’s account of turning to drink to escape from a life of domestic abuse that traces back to Scottish singer Sheila Stewart and features a new verse written by Thompson herself.
On a similarly downbeat note, dating back to around 1660, the seven minute Queen of Hearts is another song wherein women’s hearts are battered by the vagaries of men’s attitudes to love, Kate’s use of concertina retaining the 17th century flavour of the tune.
Elsewhere, the other traditional material encompasses Waly Waly, a Child Ballad about a supposedly adulterous wife, this sprightly, rather more defiant account learned from the singing of June Tabor; the Alan Lomax collected ‘white spiritual’ Father Adieu featuring Plumb accompanying the duo’s banjo and guitar; and Dean Younk A Gernow (Young Man of Cornwall), a song about Cornish emigration (many heading to Australia) sung from a woman’s perspective and learned from Cornish outfit Dalla, whose Hilary Coleman and Neil Davey instructed the pair in the pronunciation of the parts sung in Cornish.
The Freeze is Burke’s contribution to the set, a song about love in the face of intolerance inspired by an E. Annie Proulx short story with Plumb’s mandolin adding subtle shadings to the acoustic guitar and understated banjo. Hazleton’s offering is the more directly political with Hearts Of Sorrow, Burke playing concertina with Plumb on keyboards and programming for a protest lament about how corporate greed places profit above the welfare of the Earth and its indigenous people.
The remaining two cuts are both covers, banjo and mandolin driving Little Bird of Heaven, a welcome upbeat bluegrassy song of love and hope from Martha Scanlan from the Reeltime Travellers while the album closes with guitar, banjo and accordion backed version of Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune which, hewing to the original Celtic sounding intent, is closer to the versions by Andy Irvine and Leeds duo Farrago than the familiar jangling one by The Byrds.
A solid example of how less can be more, this is a both a very welcome return and an enticing introduction to the duo’s embarking upon new paths down a familiar route.
Review by: Mike Davies
Declaration is out now
Order it via Bandcamp here: kateburkeandruthhazleton.bandcamp.com