Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow think nothing of making bold artistic statements. Their previous record was a concept album examining the place of booze in British culture. A tricky subject, but one they pulled off with subtlety and aplomb. For their latest project they appear to have taken up the challenge of conveying the entire range of hidden human emotion on one record. To achieve this, they first decamped to the Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth, where O’Hooley got her hands on a Steinway grand piano, before being joined in the studio by members of Bellowhead, Chumbawamba, the Kate Rusby band and a host of other leading lights from the contemporary British folk scene.
Contemporary folk is a broad banner, but O’Hooley and Tidow are always keen to enlarge the boundaries further. Shadows contains very little of what might be considered traditional folk instrumentation. Rowan Rheingans‘ fiddle is the one exception to this, but for the most part trumpets, double bass and that ever-impressive piano give the album its signature sound. And the lyrical concerns are at once wider-ranging and more intensely personal than most artists working in the folk idiom. Opening track Colne Valley Hearts, for example, is both a tribute to the pair’s West Yorkshire home and a more general examination of the idea of belonging to a particular place. Throughout, O’Hooley’s piano ripples with constrained energy, until the release of the final chorus which bounds along with the aid of Magic Numbers guitarist Michele Stodart‘s rounded, fluid electric guitar sound.
To describe O’Hooley and Tidow’s songwriting as passionate is something of an understatement. Where they do align themselves with more traditional folk musicians is in their championing of certain causes. Nowhere is this more evident than Made In England, an angry, witty folk-rocker that attacks the ignorant attitudes of UKIP and the BNP. It feels particularly potent in light of recent political events – a timely rallying cry and a heartfelt defence of diversity. It is furnished with flourishes of brass – courtesy of Jude Abbott – that are both precise and pretty.
In all my years as a music fan and a music reviewer, I had never come across a song about orphaned elephants, until now. Blanket is inspired by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, and the fact that it works, that it doesn’t feel in any way out of place, shows just how confident, imaginative and masterful the songwriting is. Tidow’s The Needle and the Hand is almost a companion-piece to Blanket – but this time instead of tackling the suffering of animals it confronts a deeply human and deeply personal pain. Musically, it is a slow swell, its structure dictated more by natural processes than by any adherence to the received forms of popular music. It shows off a technical flair and willingness to experiment that is always present but often very subtle.
Small, Big Love was penned by Kathryn Williams, who performed it for O’Hooley and Tidow on their wedding day. It is a simple, beautiful meditation on the nature of love, its ambiguities and its certainties, and is proof that Williams is one of the best songwriters around. Here it is performed with great tenderness, and emotion that is so real it could never be cloying. It is also an excellent example of the duo’s vocal interplay – both are singers of great skill and charisma, but when they sing together their voices chime in a way that seems magical.
But it’s not all about the singing. The title track is a measured instrumental that showcases O’Hooley’s talent as a pianist. It owes as much to classical and neoclassical music – Erik Satie is a touchstone – as it does to folk or pop. Improvised and recorded in one sitting, it is an exceptionally beautiful piece of piano music, and has an almost timeless quality to it.
Something that these two do better than most is bringing life to historical characters. Beryl is told from the point of view of Beryl Burton, a record-breaking Leeds cyclist who was also a working mum. It pedals along at a jaunty pace, but still manages to fit in some of that trademark harmonising. The Pixie is another character song, this one about Daisy Daking, who taught morris dancing to shell-shocked troops in World War One. It has more of a bittersweet feel to it, with O’Hooley’s piano lines rising and falling gracefully behind yet more exquisite vocal interplay.
Reapers has a darker heart than much of the material here. Its subject – child abuse in the church – hints at the shadows of the album’s title, and the emergence from those shadows. The song’s multi-part structure is possibly the most adventurous on the whole record, and itself reflects the themes of light and darkness. It is by no means an easy listen, but it is incredibly powerful. It is followed by another brooding instrumental, The Dark and Rolling Sea, which again hints at darkness, shadow and things partly obscured. In this case the inspiration came from the forced transportation of children to Commonwealth countries.
A cover of Joni Mitchell’s River rounds things off. A song of broken dreams and aspirations that are unlikely to be fulfilled, it is one of Mitchell’s most stark and beautiful songs. It fits in so well with O’Hooley and Tidow’s own compositions because like them it is a song of deep human emotion presented in simple language – the universal and the personal hand in hand. And that is true for much of this album. It succeeds through the striking humanity of its songs, and by their originality. Despite the immense variety of the songs on show, they somehow manage to hang together by dint of a unifying theme which is present in both music and lyrics. Shadows is an album that will hopefully see its creators heralded as one of the most vital – and indeed one of the most experimental – acts on the folk circuit and beyond.
Shadows is Out Now via No Masters
O’HOOLEY & TIDOW ‘SHADOWS’ UK TOUR
01 LONDON The Pheasantry
06 WICKHAM Festival
10 BROADSTAIRS Folk Week
21 SUFFOLK FOLKEAST Festival
06 CAMBRIDGE Junction 2
09 BRISTOL Folkhouse
10 MACHYNLLETH Y Taberncl
11 MENAI BRIDGE Victoria Hotel
15 GT TORRINGTON Plough Arts Centre
16 WIVELISCOMBE Silver Street Sessions at Cotleigh Brewery
17 WHITCHURCH Talbot Theatre
23 CHIDDINGLY Festival
24 BARTON-UPON-HUMBER Ropery Hall
05 LONDON Kings Place *
07 AYLESBURY Limelight Theatre
08 LEEDS Morley Arts Festival
10 COLCHESTER Folk Club @ Arts Centre
11 BURTON Brewhouse
12 LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
13 BURY Homegrown Festival *
14 CHESTERFIELD Folk Club
19 BIRMINGHAM Red Lion Folk Club
21 WESSEX Acoustic
23 HARTLEPOOL Folk Festival
25 SHEFFIELD Greystones
28 LEEDS All Hallows Church
29 HUDDERSFIELD Marsden Mechanics Hall *
01 YORK National Centre for Early Music
02 EDINBURGH Voodoo Rooms
*Band – Michele Stodart (Magic Numbers), Pete Flood (Bellowhead) & Andy Seward (Kate Rusby)