It’s Not Your Gold Shall Me Entice is Elle Osborne’s third album, but the first on which she has written her own material. An artist with friends and admirers in high places, she has enlisted the help of Alasdair Roberts, who plays bass and sings backing vocals, and half of the Trembling Bells – Mike Hastings on guitar and Alex Neilson (surely the hardest working avant garde free-folk-jazz drummer out there) handling the percussion duties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I Don’t Like Sundays begins with clamour of instruments reminiscent of the Trembling Bells or other Neilson projects like Lucky Luke or the Black Flowers. But then Osborne’s voice hits and it becomes apparent that this is something rather different and rather special. Neilson has compared Osborne’s singing to that of Lal Waterson and Nico, and this isn’t too far off the mark, but she’s also capable of the clarity of Anne Briggs and the warmth and immediacy of Sandy Denny. But the lyrics add just as much as the vocal style. ‘Don’t take it to the house of drowning sorrows/cause no-ones ever pretty for long in that bar,’ she sings, sounding like Linda Ronstadt if she had been brought up on a diet of Ewan MacColl, while Alasdair Roberts adds his own distinctive, warm backing vocals.
In Salt simple, three-blind-mice verses belie the melancholy of the subject matter – the complex, dangerous appeal of traditional fishing fleets. Soft gong beats and jaw harp add to the idiosyncrasy. Staying with the maritime theme, This Ship Is On A List (like Bridget St. John, Shelagh MacDonald, or, melodically, Bob Dylan’s To Ramona) could be some lost sixties Greenwich Village classic until it tacks off briskly and wonderfully into a snippet of sea shanty only to return a more modern-sounding beast entirely.
A traditional song, from the Copper Family’s extensive songbook, Come Write Me Down is given the minimal treatment. It is the only song here not written by Osborne, and it is a testament to her growing songwriting ability that her material sits snugly around this lovely old song.
And Everything rests on the soft weep of a fiddle for its first minute before the rest of the band kicks in and the lyrical perspective shifts subtlety. It is a song with an old-timey feel but dissects relationships in a thoroughly modern, verbally dextrous way, while The Hired Hand is a sweet, harmonic a capella.
Toast (The Ballad Of Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper) is the most lyrically daring song here, and perhaps the most effective. Fitting in with the album’s vague theme of overcoming difficulties, it tells the story of a child arsonist who attained notoriety in 1970s Britain after nearly killing his violent father and burning down half a church. Cooper was a highly intelligent, perceptive child who spent much of his early life in detention centres or ‘special schools’. Osborne, obviously moved by his story, treats it with frankness that reflects the moral ambiguity of its protagonist’s actions, but without ever sacrificing the emotional punch. This is a refreshing approach in a field where folk singers sometimes fall prey to the trappings of sentimentality or (often justifiably or even out of necessity) take a one-sided stance.
Undone is a slow-grower, stumbling endearingly to life on Neilson’s sympathetic freeform drumming and peaking in a gentle, wordless vocal coda. Album closer All One begins with Mike Hastings’ straightforward folk-rock guitar, while Osborne once more showcases her ear for verbal detail with the refrain ‘there’s one small space and a letter between all one and alone.’ With songwriting like this it is hard to believe that it has taken Osborne so long to begin committing her own material to tape. We can only hope she doesn’t stop there.
Review by: Thomas Blake
26th Nov – London, Islington Folk Club
27th Nov – Lewes, The Con Club
06th Dec – Hebden Bridge, Trades Club *
07th Dec – Bexhill East Sussex, De La Warr Pavilion *
08th Dec – Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Cafe *
09th Dec – London, Winterville Victoria Park *
*supporting James Yorkston