Eleven for health, twelve for wealth, thirteen beware, it’s the Devil himself. So runs the old magpie-counting rhyme. And while this collection of lovely acoustic folk instrumentals is unlikely to make Ian Ross a wealthy man, it certainly sees him and his specially-assembled group of musicians in fine fettle. Bristol-based Ross and his guitar are joined on Eleven Magpies by Spiro’s Alex Vann on mandolin, James Gow of Cocos Lovers on cello and Elizabeth Wescott on violin, and although the compositions are all his own, there is a distinct ensemble feel to the album with all the freedom and all the deft interplay that implies.
The livelier tunes are perhaps the most instantly gratifying. Mississippi Snow is all over the place in the best way possible, the musicians seemingly on the edge of what can be achieved within the boundaries of melody and tempo, while Short Stride strays frantically into territory reminiscent of Balkan or gypsy folk. Spring Is Over There is as brisk and bright as its title suggests, bursting with the rhythmic energy of Gow’s cello and the fluid, birdsong-like runs of violin.
Elsewhere, for example on opening track Nidons, Wescott’s violin is used to introduce a hint of melancholy to the gentle, flitting acoustica. It helps to bring a multi-dimensional quality to the album. Back She Came is even more reflective but no less expressive, relying on a more subtle interaction and underpinned by an insistent, repeated cello note.
Eleven Magpies was influenced in part by Ross’s travels in North America – a fact evident in pieces titled Park And Washington Waltz and Mississippi Snow – but more often than not the tracks here feel rooted closer to home, in an English rural idyll where time is still measured in the changing of the seasons. White Out begins with wintry plinks and plonks that conjure up the tiny prints of animals in new snow before giving way to an open-ended violin melody that recalls both the dance of a snow flurry and the endlessness of the season cycle.
This kind of gentle but unerring progression seems to be something of a theme. Long Stride has a delicately finger-picked intro that skips between mandolin and guitar, after which the violin takes centre stage, creating a sound that is perhaps unsurprisingly similar to that of Spiro, another Bristol group whose faultless musicianship conceals a core of genuine emotion. But Eleven Magpies have their own distinct sound. Their approach lacks the minimalist rigour of Spiro but relies instead on more interpretive, fluid performances. It is a tactic that pays off handsomely, and the result is one of the most refreshing albums of instrumental folk you are likely to hear for a long time.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Live at the Lions Den (Non-album recordings)
Out Now, Order it via Eleven Magpies Website