The Silent Majority, the third album from Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, is the duo’s first studio recording since 2014’s The Call and its release rounds out a busy eighteen months, much of it spent on the road in the UK and Europe. The album’s eleven tracks comprise a mix of reworkings of traditional tunes, self-penned compositions and songs sourced from contemporary writers. In addition to making good use of their extensive skills as multi-instrumentalists, singers, writers and arrangers, Greg and Ciaran are supported on The Silent Majority by a solid cast of musicians including Tom Wright (percussion), Laurence Blackadder (double bass) and Ali M. Levack (pipes and whistles), with Hannah Martin adding harmony vocals on three songs.
The short, mood-setting instrumental ‘Prologue’ leads seamlessly into ‘The Silent Majority’, written by the late Lionel McClelland and which Greg learned from Paul McKenna. The duo’s reworking has an urgency which suits its lyrical content; Ali Levack’s whistle weaves around the fiddle while Tom Wright’s percussion adds an edge which, in turn, is soothed by some sweet harmony vocals from guest Hannah Martin. Although I’m not personally convinced by the lyrical message – I think that the silent majority is often (unwittingly) silenced, rather than silent, such is the nature of much political power – nevertheless Greg and Ciaran are to be commended for their fearless and upfront tackling of one of today’s more pressing issues.
Written by Scottish singer/songwriters Nick Turner and Findlay Napier, ‘George’ continues the lyrical preoccupation with social comment and sharply-observed characters. Greg and Ciaran’s version is a thoughtful midtempo ballad founded on a tight bouzouki and guitar backing over Laurence Blackadder’s solid double bass with one of those melodic chorus hooks that gets into your head and stays there long after the track has finished.
‘The Intruder’ combines three instrumental compositions in the one song: the traditional Irish reel ‘Fearghal O’Gara’s’ leads the way into two of Ciaran’s tunes, ‘The Intruder’ and ‘Rookery Lane’. The opening ‘Fearghal O’Gara’s’ is a bright and airy take on a well-known tune with some nimble fiddle over Greg’s strummed acoustic guitar, its segue into ‘The Intruder’ and the way in which the piece builds combine to make a great demonstration of Greg and Ciaran’s skills as arrangers; while the closing ‘Rookery Lane’ finds the pair joined by Laurence and Tom for a rousing stop/start finale which must surely raise the roof at gigs and is certainly a highlight of the album.
Derived from an arrangement by Ron Flanagan of a traditional song from the Harkness Ballad Collection, ‘We Must Be Contented’ continues the political theme. The CD sleeve notes explain that the song was written in response to the Representation of the People Act 1832. Often also known as the Reform Act, it introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales, allegedly with the intention of making life easier for working people. Needless to say, the reality was that nothing much changed and the lyric is an insightful record of the struggles that many continued to face. That the song’s meaning could so easily apply today is a potentially a little dispiriting but, while it underlines my earlier remarks about the silent majority, the slow, thoughtful arrangement sends a message which is both positive and uplifiting. Hannah returns to add some gorgeous harmonies while the quiet anger of Ciaran’s fiddle combines well with Tom’s marching beats to maintain the song’s focus.
Although originally co-written by Bev Pegg (lyrics) and John Richards (music) for Brindley Brae’s 1973 album Village Music, in a fine contemporary display of the time-honoured oral tradition of folk music, Greg learned ‘Did You Like the Battle, Sir?’ from his Dad. Ostensibly a conversation between a servant and his mortally wounded Lord after a battle, there is, I think, a clear anti-war subtext to the lyric. Ali’s Border pipes add a real fizz to the arrangement and the song is one of my favourites from the album.
Despite the seriousness of several of the songs on The Silent Majority, Greg and Ciaran do share a good sense of humour and that dry wit surfaces in the sleeve notes, with Ciaran helpfully explaining that ‘The Tide’ is his attempt at writing film music, “or at least music that could accompany a nice warm, soapy bath”, adding that “It also pays homage to the sea, which is so prominent in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent”. The outcome is a suitably cinematic instrumental composition, giving both musicians a chance to stretch out and explore some of the gentler, more atmospheric sides of their playing; the interplay between the strings towards the end being particularly effective.
‘Limbo’ (Roud 969) was suggested to Greg and Ciaran by Paul Adams, one of the co-founders of Fellside Records, who knew it from Dave Walters’ 1977 album, Comes Sailing In – and there’s no doubt it’s a good fit for the duo’s rootsier, more traditional side. It doesn’t seem to have been widely covered although I know the version by Eliza Carthy (on 2002’s Anglicana album) and I believe her Dad, Martin Carthy, also recorded it on Brass Monkey’s 2004 release, Flame of Fire. The song’s title is a reference to one of the old debtors’ prisons in London and it’s one of those moral tales that is such a mainstay of much traditional folk music. The duo’s version is an uptempo foot-tapper bolstered by some well-placed banjo from Ciaran and underpinned by Laurence’s rich and resonant double bass.
It’s followed by another reworking of a traditional song, ‘Brisk Young Man’, which the sleeve notes say is derived from Roud 60; a tune which, in stark contrast to ‘Limbo’, would seem to have been covered by the world and her sister, with a dizzying amount of variations in lyrics and titles (the keen listener might also know it as A Brisk Young Sailor, Died for Love, I Wish, The Butcher’s Boy or There Is a Tavern in the Town, to name but a few). Despite the plethora of other interpretations, Greg and Ciaran still manage to bring something fresh to the tune with a tender and rueful ballad which shows a real empathy with its subject, a young woman left with a baby and a broken heart. The sparseness of the arrangement brings to mind the overall feel of the duo’s previous album (The Call, 2014) while Hannah’s harmonies add depth to the light and shade. An outstanding reworking and currently my favourite track from the album.
The mood is lifted somewhat with the penultimate ‘Swipe Right’, another set of three instrumental tunes arranged as one continuous piece. The first two, ‘The Last Pint’ and ‘The Luck Penny’, are a hornpipe and a traditional Irish song respectively, while ‘Morven’s Jig’ is credited to Griogair Labhruidh, the Scottish Gaelic singer and piper who has done so much to keep alive the traditional seann-nòs style of the southern Hebrides and Argyll. ‘The Last Pint’ features some nice duetting between Ali and Ciaran while the lilting ‘The Luck Penny’ sounds effortlessly easy, although I suspect that there are some potentially finger-breaking chord changes going on in there. Ali picks up the Highland pipes for ‘Morven’s Jig’ over an increased tempo anchored by Tom’s steady beats and if you’re not leaping around the room like a mad thing by the end, well then, there’s really no hope for you! The set’s title is explained in the CD’s sleeve notes – all I’m going to say is: don’t leave a group of young musicians unsupervised in a room with an internet connection…
The album closes out with a cover of ‘Rolling Down the Ryburn’, the Pete Coe song from his 1985 album, It’s A Mean Old Scene, which epitomises life on the road for Greg and Ciaran and, no doubt, many other working musicians. It’s clearly a heartfelt theme and a much-loved tune. Their version is impressively restrained, resisting the urge to crank the volume up to eleven and fill the song with foot-on-the-monitor rockstar solos – maybe that’s a special treat reserved for the live shows! – in any event, it pays dividends in producing a song which captures the mood of weariness of the seasoned travelling musician and provides a suitable full stop.
In their recent interview with FRUK’s Rob Bridge (and this might also be a timely moment to point out that Rob was also responsible for the sleeve photography!), Ciaran remarked that, whereas the first two albums were more or less studio recordings of their live sets, this time round he and Greg were keen to enhance their live sound, rather than reproduce it. Listening to the new album back to back with the last one demonstrates the success of this new approach and, combined with the evident development of their technical skills as musicians, honed over eighteen months of solid gigging, the result is an album which consolidates and expands upon their previous record. The Silent Majority is both a milestone and a pointer to the future; from start to finish it’s packed with great songs played with panache, confidence and an irresistible enthusiasm for the music. It’s an album which firmly establishes the reputations of Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar as one of the best duos on the British folk circuit today and, if there’s any justice in this world, will sell by the wagonload to existing fans and newcomers alike.
Review by: Helen Gregory
The Silent Majority is released March 18th, 2016 via Fellside
For details of their forthcoming tour dates visit: www.russellalgar.co.uk