Some things go well together. Fish and Chips. Gin and Tonic. Starsky and Hutch. Alanis Morissette and irony.* Chalk up another two, because Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston could well become your next favourite partnership. Sykes is perhaps better known for her role in Show Of Hands, but the duo celebrate their 6th year together with the release of The Watchmaker’s Wife, their third album. In that time they’ve won plaudit after plaudit for their close harmony work and songwriting, both of which are showcased across the eleven tracks on offer.
They start with a title track that acts as an exemplary example of the beautifully wrought contradictions within a lot of their artistry; the often bright and breezy melodies in counterpoint to the stark, serious and sometimes desperately sad lyrics. ‘The Watchmaker’s Wife’ is borne aloft on Preston’s mandolin, an instrument that seems wedded to his fingers from the off. So fluent and effortless are the sounds that emanate from within, it’s difficult to imagine him having let go of it, well, ever – I’d quite confidently wager we’re hearing a lot more than the apocryphal 10,000 hours of practise here. Together, they execute a lovely key change towards the end of the chorus, which is followed by ominous bass notes from Sykes’s upright, in this instance a lean, twisting beast clearly in the hands of an expert. It’s just the first of a series of standout moments on an album of great beauty.
The contrast between the melody and the context the words place the subject matter in – that of a man unable to connect to the love around him – is just the start of a road the album takes, often seemingly unconsciously but no doubt planned. Combined with the ache that encompasses all those who see time passing without being able to make of it what they really want – ‘How do we mark a life?’ – as a starter for ten, the title track is powerful stuff and superbly rendered.
Preston takes the lead on (Boo Hewerdine-penned) ‘S.A.D.’ – does it refer to seasonally affected disorder or is it pushing at the greater borders of depression? Either way, the mournful bass notes in the middle-eight hang like weights around the plaintive cry Preston uses to beseech the protagonist’s other half throughout.
If it’s notable that Chris Difford, one half of one of Britain’s greatest pop partnerships, co-wrote the title track, the dolorous tone running through ’S.A.D.’ does nothing to prepare you for Preston’s own ‘Rosie’, a brilliant splash of folk-pop that, were it to swap the mandolin, bass and various studio effects for the traditional four-piece set up of a rock band, could pass for the teeth-worrying confections of Squeeze, mid-period McAloon or Aztec Camera era Frame. I dare you not to hit repeat as soon as it finishes, if only for the wonderful harmonies in the build to the chorus and Preston’s dextrous staccato strum melody. It’s a joyful noise that will have you open-mouthed at what two inventive musicians can achieve with (purposefully) limited acoustic choices. It’s the best song I’ve heard for ages and an early contender for any 2016 best of list.
The journey continues with the extended intro to the traditional ‘Good Natured Man’. By now, your ears attuned to the interplay between their instruments, you can follow them as they thrust and counter, weave in and out of each other and around the confines of their instruments, constantly probing, teasing out fills and filigree at the drop of a note or the spaces between them.
As with their arrangement of the trad. Bonny Light Horseman a little later, ‘Good Natured Man’ perfectly pitches the duo’s respect for the history of their genre with a wish to update and augment, to send the songs into the twenty-first century and beyond with plenty of respect and not a little panache. Witness the way, at 0:32, that Preston introduces the original melody line with a few seconds of fret-board trickery, or at 1:24 when some fiercely struck chords herald the first words, sung in lovely harmony and anchored by Sykes’s upright. There are little touches like these throughout the album and plenty of cold nights left in which to hunker down and hit pause and play over and over again to ensure you haven’t missed them.
In-between those two, a cover of Blazin’ Fiddles instrumental ’Swedish’ extracts some remarkably low and ground-shaking notes from the upright, their slow passage through the melody like a proud boat on the swell of Preston’s mandolin. As ‘Swedish’ rests on Sykes’ playing, ‘Going To The West’ does so on her voice; a sinuous trail of tears and silk that raise the hairs on your arms within the first lines. Again with the harmonies, and again with the replete nature of the sound; somewhere in the back of your mind a little voice continues to wonder at what’s possible with two instruments and two voices.
They switch from trad. to contemporary without missing a beat. Preston’s ballad ‘Leaving Song’ is one of the latter, as is a great version of banjo (amongst other stringed weapons) wunderkind Tony Furtado’s ‘Waste Of The Moon’, which provides more opportunity for their oh so natural interplay. Both songs slow the pulse, but second instrumental ‘(Insert Name’s) Waltz’, another Preston original (and nicely titled; if hedging their bets, we’d best hope those using it to woo future partners don’t play it to all their prospects…) ups the rhythm ante again and wanders over the fretboard like a troubadour whose had one too many before the sun’s reached the yardarm. John Doyle’s Exile’s Return’ closes the album, sung by Sykes with a lovely mixture of hope, longing and regret, a fitting end to a record that, given the right profile, cannot fail but to raise theirs.
These two virtuoso musicians have created a wonderfully balanced album that swaggers as much as it sashays, shimmers as much as it soothes. So engaging is this record that it achieved that rare combination of immediacy and longevity and has rarely been off my hi-fi since it arrived. Fred and Ginger with a hint of Bonnie and Clyde, Sykes and Preston have hit paydirt with The Watchmaker’s Wife – a class affair from start to finish.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
*One of these may not be true.