Winners of the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for Best Duo, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin continue to forge ahead with their third album, Watershed, a moving and very accomplished achievement. On their last album, Mynd, the duo delved into the past for the most part with several of the songs celebrating historical characters. For Watershed they have said they wanted to explore the idea of a modern folk tale – drawing on personal experience to create edgier, grittier material whilst retaining an ‘everyman’ empathy. It’s certainly the case that Watershed is a more cohesive album than its predecessor, the songs very much flowing one into the next. It’s also much more of a band album having been recorded during a ten day stay at the Blackdown Hills on the Somerset-Devon border with Henry and Martin accompanied by Matt Downer on double bass and James Taylor on percussion. While there’s evidence galore of Henry’s vaunted instrumental dexterity, here he has parked his use of exotic instruments for the time being concentrating instead on guitar and Dobro along with his expressive harmonica work. With Martin no slouch herself on the violin there are instrumental passages here that mesmerise, conjuring up a bucolic film score.
There are some songs derived from personal histories. Yarrow Mill, the only lead voice for Henry on the album is a tender ballad redolent of a bygone age as he sings of his grandparents’ courtship in a Lancashire mill; humble folk who work the cotton and who “don’t like to make a fuss.” A wonderful little song the pizzicato violin that opens it reeks of wind and rain and there’s an understated sense of the daily hardships folk faced back then finding comfort only in family. Family features again on Foundling, apparently based again on family history. It’s a fleet of foot folk song with Dobro in the driving seat over some vibrant double bass and supple drumming while the addition of vibes into the heady instrumental mix recalls Pentangle back in the days. Finally there’s a nostalgic bent on Conkers, a hymn to that childhood pursuit which one might imagine would be defiantly anglicised but instead sounds as if it could be from a Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss album, its sweet Dobro stylings defining it.
Folk music has always been entwined with seasons and nature and the duo pay attention to both on several of the cuts. The opening title song is perhaps the summit of the album as Martin (who sings wonderfully throughout) takes us to Coniston and the Cumbrian fells as Henry plays some astounding harmonica over a martial beat. The folkiest song here it gathers momentum towards the end in a grand manner. Midway through there’s an instrumental, December, which, contrary to expectations is not wintry but again nods to an American influence, the violin and guitars weaving together in a grand manner somewhat in the way The Punch Brothers have polished up bluegrass. It is emotive but more so of autumn colours than wintry skies however the following acapella rendition by Martin of January not only pulls the listener back to UK folkdom but reminds one of Janus, the two faced chap who looks forwards and back.
This leads us to what might be termed the “contemporary” songs on the album. Stones is based on a UKIP party member’s absurd declaration that the storms of 2014 were God’s judgement on same sex marriage. Here the marriage of music and lyrics is impressive as the song sweeps along with undulating guitar and mandolin (played by Rex Preston) as Martin sings “Have you ever come down, so chase your neighbour out of town, point your finger lay the blame make sure your world stays the same.” London is a jaundiced update on the Dick Whittington tale and features some frenzied harmonica and fiddle work over a driving beat and the album closes with the fairly straightforward Taxis, a fine downbeat addition to the canon of musician’s road songs, banjo and guitar plunking away as Martin tires of heading up the M5 and hanging around. It’s a simple ending to an album replete with images amid some heady instrumentation which should cement their reputation.
Review by: Paul Kerr
Released 25 September via Dragonfly Roots
Order via Amazon
Stay tuned to hear tracks on Folk Radio UK’s 24 Hour radio stream.
Their London launch (with full band) is on 2nd October at Kings Place. We’ll be catching them at their sold-out Embercombe launch show near Exeter on the following day. They have plenty of dates coming up so check their website for full tour details here: