It’s hard to believe that it’s been eighteen months since At Our Next Meeting, the debut release from The Furrow Collective (Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton), but our fearless foursome have certainly not been idle in the meantime. Interspersed with numerous album releases (solo and band) and a comprehensive selection of life events, The Furrow Collective has been quietly but steadily playing live and at last the folk quartet has been able to draw together all the threads to release Blow Out The Moon, a new five-song EP which has been well worth the wait. Each member of the band takes lead vocal duties on one song with Alasdair and Lucy sharing the role for the last track, while the songs themselves are the band’s arrangements of traditional compositions.
In the sleeve notes, Lucy says she was drawn to the opening folk song ‘Poor Old Horse’ (Roud 513) initially because of the byline in Norman & Stracke’s Songs Of Man: ‘Humans are not the only creatures who are maudlin. Here is a case of “equine self-pity”‘. Anyone unfamiliar with the song could be forgiven for immediately thinking of E. H. Shepard’s illustrations of Eeyore and thus half-expecting some sort of funereal lament, only to be flummoxed by the band’s jaunty arrangement. However, a little digging reveals that the song has its origins in the May Day hobby-horse ceremonies in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, a fact which casts an entirely different light on it and goes a long way towards explaining the upbeat treatment. Lucy’s clear and tuneful vocals lead over a tick-tock rhythm and insistent flurries of banjo, harp and guitar in this unusual and idiosyncratic arrangement.
‘Shule Agra’ (Roud 911) is apparently a phonetic rendering of the original title, ‘Súil a Grá’ (‘walk with me, my joy’ in English) and, according to John and Alan Lomax, its melody was carried to “every quarter of America” by Irish emigrants and, “In the process its Gaelic refrain became splendidly mangled”. In the sleeve notes, Emily says she adapted the arrangement from a Cecilia Costello recording of 1951, adding that she’d recently discovered that it was “also collected from basket-weaving girls of Liverpool, where I now live, which prompted me to start singing it again”. Emily’s concertina blends well with Alasdair’s guitar and Lucy’s fiddle while a gentle percussive rhythm slaps like the waves against the quayside, over which Emily’s voice floats like a warm breeze in this lovely song of overcoming the grief over losing a loved one.
The well-known and much-loved ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’ (Roud 51; Child 78a) seems to have undergone something of a revival amongst contemporary folk artists, with versions by Kate Rusby, Bellowhead and Eliza Carthy & Nancy Kerr all being recorded in recent years. In the sleeve notes, Rachel says that she drew on the melody recorded by Shirley Collins during the UK folk music revival of the 1960s and her vocals preserve the melancholy of the lyric. The sparse arrangement of pizzicato strings over a distant harmonium drone builds gradually with the introduction of electric bass, concertina and piano ahead of Alasdair’s brief electric guitar solo before ebbing away to the song’s conclusion. It’s a tender and moving performance all round and a highlight of the EP.
Although the song is thought to have originated in the 19th century, Alasdair learned ‘Lament To The Moon’ (Roud 906) from the singing of the late Packie Manus Byrne on his 1977 album Songs of a Donegal Man. A simple and lilting arrangement of guitar, concertina and fiddle is more than enough to support the breathtakingly lovely ensemble harmony singing and make it another of the EP’s highlights. Apparently Packie called it a “round the fire song”, sung at home during the long winter evenings, a tradition which I may well be reviving myself tonight!
The closing ‘Oh To Be In My Bed And Happit/Blow Out The Moon’ is a seamless combination of two songs. The first, ‘Oh To Be In My Bed And Happit’ (Roud 6753) was learned by Alasdair from the singing of Anne Neilson, at a Glasgow Ballad Workshop session focusing specifically on songs from the Greig-Duncan Folksong Collection; while Lucy found the lyrics of ‘Blow Out The Moon’ in a book of childrens’ verse, which she then set to her own tune. The lyric of ‘Oh To Be In My Bed And Happit’ puts me in mind of the medieval poem Westron Wynde and that articulation of the simple wish not to be left alone in the dark is reflected in ‘Blow Out The Moon’ with the childish request to “sing me a lullaby, please”. It touches some reflex deep within us, no matter how old or young we are, and the minimalist arrangement for ‘Oh To Be In My Bed And Happit’ is correspondingly soothing and reassuring, with some sweet counterpoint harmonies over a hypnotically repetitive piano, before being joined by a distant harmonium drone for ‘Blow Out The Moon’.
Blow Out The Moon is a well-chosen selection of some of the less well-known traditional folk songs, presented with immaculate arrangements, precision musicianship and flawless harmonies. It makes the ideal companion to At Our Next Meeting and I, for one, can only hope that a second full-length Furrow Collective album will be forthcoming in the fullness of time.
Review by: Helen Gregory
29 Sep – The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
30 Sep – The Junction, Cambridge
01 Oct – Kings Place, London