Freya Rae and Louis Bingham are accomplished multi-instrumentalists from opposite ends of the UK: Freya hails from the Scottish Borders while Louis was raised in Devon and they each bring a wealth of influence and experience to their joint venture. Freya is a member of the Tom Kitching Band and plays in another duo with her younger sister, Eryn Rae, while Louis has performed and recorded with nyckelharpa player Griselda Sanderson (read the review of ‘Radial’, her latest album here) and tours in the house band of the world renowned Giffords Circus. The pair has been playing together for a few years and now present their debut album Curlicue, a collection of dance music that mixes their original compositions with traditional pieces from Ireland, Brittany and Scandinavia.
Starting the album with a quartet of reels and jigs, The Foorglass Set takes its name from the opening tune, the spellbinding Foorglass Jig, which Tyneside flute player Tom McElvogue composed following a visit to the area of Connemara that was the home of his maternal grandfather. Freya’s multi-tracked flute and whistles are mesmerising as Louis’ provides a complimentary guitar backing that is equally fascinating as it keeps up with every turn. The interplay continues through the following three traditional pieces but after continuing on guitar during The Orphan, Louis switches to banjo for Drag Her Round the Road and Mullingar Lea.
Title track Curlicue lives up to the promise of its name, with a warbling, weaving clarinet and a climbing, spiralling flute that curls and twists as it dances around the guitar. The set visits fiddler Paddy Fahey’s reel that bears his name, the traditional slip jig Elizabeth Kelly’s Delight and Freya’s own Curlicue, during which Louis’ expertly-picked guitar follows Freya’s clarinet perfectly.
Briefly moving away from reels and jigs, Crocus is a pair of waltzes: Freya wrote Crocus Waltz to celebrate a display of the pretty flowers that appear each spring in a Newcastle park and her flute brings out the feeling of transition from the colder months into the brighter, warmer period of rebirth that lies ahead. The second part, Nico’s Mermaid, was composed by traditional Irish fiddler Siobhan Peoples after hearing a Breton fisherman’s story of a friend who believed that his true love would come out of the sea.
A steep and windy road in the Scottish Borders lends its name to Lanton Road, another of Freya’s tunes, which is appropriately rendered on woodwinds. It appears with The Shoemaker’s Daughter and Alice’s Reel, from Irish fiddlers Ed Reavy and Frankie Gavin respectively. Freya’s 14-year-old sister Eryn provides some outstanding bow work over the flute and Louis’ foot-tapping bodhran rhythms.
During a Fest Noz or night festival in Brittany, musicians often play a lengthy introduction to allow the dancers to prepare for the main tune. And so the slow, low clarinet notes of traditional reel Rond de Loudeac are played as Call to the Dance, segueing into another of Freya’s Treujenn Gaol. Far from being about a women’s prison as the title might suggest, the piece helps to explain the apparently unusual use of a clarinet in traditional music. The title translates from Breton as ‘cabbage stalk’ and was used by suspicious bombard players to describe the clarinet on its introduction to Brittany in the eighteenth century. It’s a lovely piece with passages played alternately and together on dual clarinets and flute, as in Breton music, where two clarinetists often play together.
Freya takes a back seat as Louis plays his picked guitar piece Farewell Monty complete with atmospheric layered harmonic drones from an E-Bow resonator. Louis’ skilled fretwork continues to take the spotlight on Guitar Hornpipes, which is made up of the traditional The Brown Coffin and Humours of Ballyconnell. Griselda Sanderson’s rich nyckelharpa displaces the latter reel from its Irish home with a more Scandinavian sound that aids and abets the guitar part wonderfully.
One of the first sets of reels that Freya and Louis put together provides a fine album closer. After Mrs. Lawrie’s, from fiddle player Brendan McGlinchey, a return visit to the work of Tom McElvogue ends the album as it began, although The Watchmaker and The Boys of Ballisodare are both traditional tunes rather than Tom’s own. This showcase of flute, banjo and guitar skills demonstrates why the set continues to be a repertoire favourite.
Freya Rae Louis Bingham’s Curlicue certainly lives up to its title: its musical twists and turns reflect the decorative curls and swirls often seen in calligraphy and architecture, enhanced by a multi-tracked depth that demands focussed attention. This exhaustingly foot-tapping, head-nodding collection of captivating tunes is a magnificent debut that rewards the listener enormously on repeated plays.
Review by: Roy Spencer