For a few years now, Mairi Orr has been performing in and around Edinburgh, charming live audiences with songs that succeed in blending contemporary Scottish folk and Americana. Her smooth, engaging voice and flair for a well-penned song bore fruit in the very well received 2011 EP, The Gathering Crows. Since that initial release, Mairi has developed her song writing and vocal abilities still further in an approach to contemporary transatlantic roots music that can stand side by side with the likes of Siobhan Miller and Heidi Talbot. Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and with funding from Creative Scotland, this year Mairi has released her début album, Jenny Does Burn. And to really help that talent shine, Mairi has also gathered together an impressive selection of like-minded musical talent.
Recorded at Heriot Toun studios with Mattie Foulds taking care of overall production and providing his usual steadfast percussion, the band is further enhanced by the presence of Steven Polwart on guitars, mandolin and vocals; Scotland’s busiest double bassist, Nico Bruce; Fraser Fifield on low whistle; Dave Currie on dobro; Danny Hart providing fiddle, banjo, mandolin and Mark Woods making an appearance on clawhammer banjo. That’s quite a gathering, and it’s a very effective one too. There’s a natural, palpable empathy among them; a union brought about by Mairi’s songs that has resulted in a very impressive release.
The music embraces Scottish and American roots music in their myriad flavours and forms, moving effortlessly between influences. Drawing on family and social history, love and longing, nature and belonging, Mairi’s songs command attention and reward it.
As mentioned, history inspires a healthy proportion of Mairi’s work and the The Drover opens the album with a thrilling piece of story-telling. Atop the habit-forming combination of Steven Polwart’s guitar and Dave Currie’s dobro; Mairi’s silky voice paints a picture of the drover’s life that’s far darker, and probably far closer to the truth, than any of the countless songs that have covered the subject before.
The stealthy wait, bide their time
our drover called a fair man’s fight
a match for him, he’d never be
the reiver cast his eyes to me
This song alone should be enough to convince the most discerning listener of Mairi’s talent as a song-writer. But there’s more, so much more…
Continuing the historical note the title track, Jenny Does Burn, takes the story of the last witch to be burned in Scotland and delivers it with a strong Latin flavour. A surprising approach for such a dark, and frankly horrific topic; but it’s pulled off with a panache that somehow seems to relate to the frivolous nature of the accusers, or even the distracted state of the victim.
The transatlantic twang continues in Don’t You Wed Another Man, Maggie. An upbeat song filled with fear and regret. Mairi’s own harmonies are intricate, even arresting, but never over-stated. Danny Hart’s triple contribution of fiddle, banjo and mandolin underpins the rich vibrancy.
Many of the songs provide an introspective note. In the light and breezy On the Shore, for example, Mairi paints a loving portrait of her home by Morar’s silver sands, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on the Scottish coastline. Just a Fallow Year shows that not every topic can be mounted in an attention-grabbing frame. The heartache of childlessness is portrayed with a gentleness that, while never morose, still succeeds in plucking at the heart-strings. And the reflective and melancholy Letting It Go, in flowing towards its positive conclusion is probably the finest example on the album of a song where the whole band shine together.
In The Promise, emigration separates a young a couple and the hopes of Mari’s heroine are dashed on the rocks. Although gently upbeat it’s a sad tale of waiting and disappointment and is typical of Mairi’s song-writing skill. The abandoned lover is portrayed convincingly, with utter conviction and even with a clever hint of bitter regret. The writing talent is understated, never showy, but is there in abundance.
A deep love of music and the written word for the mere fun of it is another important aspect of this album’s charm. Drinker’s Wife, delivered in a similar musical vein to Don’t You Wed Another Man, Maggie, stands out with its stripped-back simplicity as vocal, guitar and banjo provide a short warning against making the wrong choice. In I’m Not a Gamblin’ Man, there’s another impressive application of Mairi’s own harmonies; and further confirmation of the incredible pool of talent brought together for this recording; as Steven and Danny conspire to create their own Hot Club De France in an ode to a man with his feet on the ground.
Ragged Robin stands alone as a light, sparkling snatch of nature poetry. Danny’s fiddle takes on the robin’s voice while Steven’s guitar/mandolin give it wings.
But it’s in family history that the true soul of Mairi’s music takes flight. The Piper of Peanmeanach takes a significant chapter of that history and, amid Steven’s gentle guitar cascades and Danny’s wistful fiddle; Fraser Fifield’s plaintive low whistle summons the spirit of Mairi’s soldier/piper ancestor with a unique poignancy.
As a song-writer, Mairi’s doubly blessed. She has a wealth of family history to draw on, and a rich vein of talent to give the stories a voice. In closing the album, Summer on the Clyde (1914) displays the very best of both these gifts in a tale inspired by a family painting. Given the subject of the painting (and the best way to find that out is to enjoy Mari’s beautifully crafted sleeve notes) Mark Woods’ clawhammer banjo brings the album to a fitting conclusion.
It’s almost tempting to say that, for a début CD, Jenny Does Burn is quite exceptional. The truth is, though, Jenny Does Burn is simply an exceptional CD, début or not. It’s a remarkable album by any standards. Solid song writing and one of this year’s finest vocal performances have combined with Steven Polwart’s engaging arrangements and Mattie Foulds’ atmospheric production to create an album that showcases Mairi Orr’s vibrant love of acoustic music, story-telling gift and ability as a performer.
Review by: Neil McFadyen