The lot of the humble reviewer can be very frustrating, when it involves much effort in tracking down a disc from a favourite artist only to find that their agent is either disinclined to send out any review copies or else tries to cut corners by providing skimpy promo discs or (worse still) only digital downloads. It’s a great pleasure, then, to receive, out of the blue, a proper finished copy of the whole package, from an artist I’ve never before heard of. And an even greater pleasure to subsequently discover that the quality of the music entirely matches and justifies the effort expended in its presentation. Here, then, is one such disc.
Brothers James and Sam (Gillespie) describe themselves as North Tyne troubadours who “sing in honour of the spirits, of lands, cultures, tongues and silences, ways of being beyond the centres of control” (for “there lie the Outlands, without and within”). The opening track from this collection of mainly but not exclusively traditional songs is a fresh-faced treatment of Spancil Hill, intensely realised and sparsely scored (just a guitar for backing, with a fiddle break midway) but clothed in some glorious sibling vocal harmonies (rather like vintage Simon & Garfunkel, I initially thought) and giving up to a rousing lilted coda. Quite unique among contemporary versions of the song, in fact.
Weaving an especially compelling magic that’s generated by its very nakedness and intrinsic wildness, the music of the Brothers feeds off the primal power of the landscape. It presents its chosen legends quite unhurriedly, often expansively, observing its own particular time-frame almost and yet within the very much present of the here and now. Their lusty, highly-charged take on border ballad The Twa Corbies gallops along like a phantom horse through a nightmare forest of devil-driven fiddle arabesques, whereas by contrast the grisly dialogue of My Son David is primally intoned over a bare shruti drone, a riveting reading directly inspired by one of Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings made in Scotland. Time is almost heard to stand still here, as the music and song resounds down through the ages.
On the whole record, the determinedly basic individual instrumental timbres of guitars (nylon- and steel-strung) and fiddle are augmented tellingly by occasional mandolin and wooden flute. The duo’s honest, brisk though still melodious account of Bonny At Morn loses nothing of the lullaby’s haunting quality, for all that the vocal harmony line (and comparable flute overdub) imparts a slightly disturbing counterpoint; I also like the way the vocal rendition is succeeded by a transformation of the tune into a tripping medieval jig. The Butcher Boy is plaintively done here to a consoling tarantella, with delicate, sweetly reassuring vibrato harmonies that recall early Incredible String Band as much as Simon & Garfunkle. And a lively yet satisfyingly thoughtful account of MacPherson’s Lament closes the disc in style, and features some particularly imaginative guitar work.
The disc’s remaining selections don’t emanate from Northumbrian or Scots tradition, however. The Stolen Child, a setting (by Emily Stewart) of a poem by Yeats, is very much a to-be-sung-under-a-night-sky pieces it’s delivered definitively in that outdoor mode, seven pindrop minutes of beautifully decorated a cappella, to the atmospheric backdrop of a softly running stream. Devil’s Water is a frenetic mando-driven setting (by James himself) of words by Northumbrian poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (bearing some of the strongly propelled animation of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, perhaps). The special ambience of James Armstrong’s lyrical tribute to The Wild Hills Of Wannies is conjured by the Northumbrian pipes of guest musician Rob Say. In contrast, the “outlandish” French children’s song L’ Alouette and its companion (Breton) dance tune The Great Bear are whipped up into a delightful confection with gleeful abandon and an almost casual sense of virtuosity.
Well before the end of this CD, it’s blindingly obvious why The Brothers Gillespie were by all accounts a massive hit at 2014’s BAAFest… The music on their debut disc is entirely captivating, as is the exemplary presentation, characterful and attractive package artwork and booklet design; the notes are good too, indeed all that’s missing are the lyrics. File under VIP (Very Impressive Product)! – for this fantastic CD is surely destined to become one of my albums of 2016 (and it’s still only February!).
Review by: David Kidman
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