We’re used to bringing you advance notice of exciting releases here on Folk Radio UK, but news of The Shee‘s latest album, Continuum, has been teasing us for the best part of a year now. In November last year the band announced a special project to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Each of the six band members (Shona Mooney, Rachel Newton, Olivia Ross, Laura-Beth Salter, Amy Thatcher, Lillias Kinsman-Blake) commissioned an original work from a chosen musical hero, to be premiered at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Folk Radio UK featured exclusive blog entries from the band, introducing their chosen collaborator, throughout November and December (read them here), then in January we reported from the Celtic Connections premiere of the Continuum project at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library (read the review here).
In a truly memorable performance, the band was joined by their chosen collaborators. Kathryn Tickell, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood, Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting (unfortunately Brian Finnegan was unavailable) took to the stage in turn to join the band live and present their commissioned piece. More Live dates followed in February before the band took to Castlesound Studios with producer Duncan Lyall. With the release last week of the lead single from the album, Song For Mary, (and our caption competition) this has all served to whet our appetites for what must be one of the most eagerly anticipated projects of the year.
As well as the newly commissioned pieces, there are also new tracks composed by the band members. Opening the album, Laura-Beth Salter’s From The Shadows combines a metronomic mandolin with layers of vocal in a menacing warning to those who wield power over others. Just as with that memorable live premiere in Glasgow back in January, the first collaborative piece on the album was provided by fiddle player Shona Mooney’s choice – small pipe and fiddle maestro, Kathryn Tickell.
In Ower Late for the Lasses / Sheepolska a pair of fiddles open with voices that seem to emanate from misty Northumbrian moors before finding their way to a welcoming dance. Kathryn’s inspiration was a tune from Shona’s dad, Gordon Mooney. Later in the album the Northumbrian theme returns when Shona’s beautifully merry fiddle tune, with the comically sinister title The Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle, is paired with Laura-Beth’s Don’t Work Too Hard, which steps the merriment up a gear into a full-force jig, Laura-Beth’s mandolin setting a frantic pace for Lillias Kinsman-Blake’s flute and a chorus of fiddles. As fast paced as it is enjoyable.
Moving the influences north of the Tyne, singer/harp innovator Rachel Newton was inspired to enlist the cooperation of Karine Polwart after spending time on tour with her band. Karine, in turn, was inspired to pay tribute to the life of jute worker, activist, feminist and songwriter Mary Brooksbank who wrote the famous Jute Mill Song. Opening with a sample of Mary singing her song, Karine’s Song For Mary gains increased pathos with Rachel’s expressive voice. Although unmistakeably characteristic of Karine Polwart’s songwriting, The Shee make the song their own – the drama and defiance of Rachel’s voice, growing from the plaintive opening, while mandolin and fiddle take the instrumental lead.
And in those days of the Means Test Inspector
She raised a red flag on the street
And vowed that none would be her master
Despite the disconsolate chorus the song is ultimately uplifting; especially the gloriously harmonic close, with its layers of vocal and quiet accordion. A quote from Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song is the only one from a female writer to have been inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s Writer’s Wall.
That beautifully melodic sound from Amy Thatcher’s accordion is, of course, the prominent voice in the piece provided by Amy’s choice of mentor, Andy Cutting. The sublime melody for Andy’s Lady Grey soars skyward, lifted by the spell-binding intricacy of mandolin, violins and flute towards a dazzling conclusion. Then there’s an immediate contrast in the mysterious, ghostly opening of Cradle Song. Fiddle player Olivia Ross commissioned Chris Wood to contribute to the album, and he responded with his composition for a lyric from accomplished Norfolk story-teller Hugh Lupton. Olivia’s flawless vocal provides the lullaby with a warming softness, as the backing vocals drift like ice-laden snowflakes.
We bless the oak who gave himself both leaf and limb
To make the crib we rock you in
While through the woods the east wind blows
Little snow over deep snow, over deep snow, the little snow
Precious Tears is a new composition from Olivia that provides a welcome reminder, among all this thrilling instrumentation, of the glorious vocal harmonies The Shee produce, especially with Lillias’ flute dancing alongside the voices, and a gorgeous fiddle solo. In a brace of tunes from Laura-Beth and Amy, the gentle, airy opening of Peaks leads to a softly tumbling flute/accordion duet; before fiddle takes the cascading melody from a gentle stream toward something more like white water. Bass-rich harp effects coax Benasque from the watery depths before the flute bursts, enthusiastically, through the surface like a newly hatched mayfly into the sunlight.
Flute player Lillias Kinsman-Blake has cited Brian Finnegan as her major musical influence, and the trio of tunes he’s provided for Continuum, The Birds of Salim Ali / On the Breathing Road / The Soaring Seas, are nothing short of enchanting. Enhanced by an arrangement that’s rich with strings, musical conversations and the indisputable craft of The Shee, the set sweeps us away before Martin Simpson’s utterly captivating song, Dance With Me. Opening with a small, beautiful waltz, Jasper’s, Martin was chosen by Laura-Beth, and his heart-wrenching song was inspired by the discovery of his mother’s unused dancing shoes. Laura-Beth’s poignant vocal is accompanied by all the melodic splendour The Shee can provide – a considerable force. Lose yourself in this song and I defy you not to shed a tear.
Won’t somebody dance with me
Though I’m as bitter as can be
I’ve clicked these heels so many times
But nobody takes me home.
Continuum is a perfect combination of The Shee‘s inventiveness and the creative voices of their contributors. Those voices, although not involved in the recording sessions, can be heard loud and clear in Continuum’s arrangements. Kathryn Tickell’s deeply cherished Northumbrian roots, Karine Polwart’s peerless song craft, the sheer joy of Andy Cutting’s compositions and the complimentary strength of Chris Wood’s; Brian Finnegan’s never ending supply of airs, jigs and reels and Martin Simpson’s beautifully poetic lyrics. Each of these are tangible elements in a unique, enthralling project that celebrates the power of collaboration, a shared love of traditional music and The Shee‘s ten years as a major force in folk music. The premiere of Continuum at Celtic Connections was an unforgettable event, the album that’s grown from it is simply outstanding.
Continuum is released on 23 September 2016
Continuum Tour Dates 2016
23.09 Eden Court, Inverness
24.09 Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (Scottish launch)
29.09 The Hug and Pint, Glasgow
30.09 Caird Hall, Dundee
1.10 Eastgate Theatre, Peebles
14.10 King’s Place, London (English launch) Ticket Link
15.10 The Platform, Morecambe