Folk devotees, and Scottish ones, in particular, hold the late Michael Marra in high regard. Known as the Bard of Dundee, Marra’s work extended beyond the usual folk circuit into theatre, radio and television while his songwriting was firmly embedded in both the reality and the romance of Scottish life. He passed in 2012 following a battle with throat cancer, leaving behind a legacy of six studio and three live albums, along with three EPs, one of which was recorded with Hazey Jane, the band in which his two children play, among them such notable songs as Hermless, We Are She, Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Taybridge Bar and Chain Up The Swings.
The latter now provides the title for this tribute by his daughter Alice Marra, an album on which she interprets twelve of his songs, not all of which found their way on to his own recordings. Although some purists may baulk at the approach, she’s deliberately not sought to copy the originals, what, after all, would be the point. What Alice Marra has done, however, is demonstrate the strength of the material by placing it in a different mainstream musical setting, arranging them for big band styled strings and brass and bringing their inherent pop melodies into focus. Well aware of her old man’s sense of humour, there’s playfulness here too.
The album opens with Soldier Boy, a previously unheard moody lullaby found on an old cassette demo, piano and strings accentuating its likely show origins, before digging into Michael’s solo debut album, The Midas Touch, for Taking The Next Train Home, a lush strings intro offering a cinematic feel before the drums and guitars kick in and it blossoms into a sweetly sung pop song that, in another life, might easily have been a Carpenters hit.
Australia Instead of the Stars was written about Dundee engineer Sandy Kidd who, in the 80s, invented a working anti-gravity gyroscope and went on to invent a whole series of propulsion devices based around the same principles before eventually emigrating to Australia. The original song was a fairly primitive arrangement, sounding almost demo-like, but Alice has given it a dreamy strings coating, Alice Marra’s voice soaring skyward and again giving it a sweeping show tune quality.
Set after her death and played out in the local pub, one of Marra’s best loved and best-known songs, Frida’s up next, ditching the Latin rhythms and transforming it into a fabulous piano ballad.
Although covered by the likes of Hue & Cry and Eddi Reader, the only version of Mother Glasgow, from the theatre production A Wee Home From Home, is a piano accompanied recording on Sobriety Live. With the use of warm brass, bass drum and acoustic guitar, Alice gives it an old musical hall quality.
There are three other songs Michael never recorded. Goodnight To Lovely You, which, as you might gather, is a touch romantic, especially the refrain “he can’t catch a rose between his teeth, I can’t lay my hands on an olive wreath”, and, given a slow waltzing arrangement, there’s a touch of country too. Megan dates from 1996 and is a dreamily shimmering musical box waltzing lullaby written on the birth of Alice’s second cousin and the album ends with another show song, the violin and piano accompanied The Lass Wi’ The Flax in Her Hair, from They fairly make ye work, again harking to music hall tradition.
Drawing on the 60s revival, the title track, appearing on the Pax Vobiscum album, was one of Marra’s most directly folk songs, but Alive gives it a poppier – and again somewhat country – groove, accentuating the inherently catchy melody and infectious tumbling chorus. It segues straight into the piano intro to Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson, a tribute to the Shetland guitarist that appeared on the Quintet EP, retaining the original’s ragtime feel. Maybe because it’s Alice Marra’s favourite track off Gaels Blue, Mincing Wi’ Chairlhi stays close to the waltzing original, although the brushed drums and Kevin Murray’s guitar solo give its folk colours a definite jazzy hue.
The final number, New German Waltz was recorded for Marra’s second Mike Vernon-produced album, Dubiety. However, a mix of blues, Dylan, rock and ragtime, his label at the time decided it was too confusing and shelved it. It’s finally being released in the wake of Alice’s album, and her bouncy pop version hews close to the original, adding a splash of 70s electric piano at the intro and sounding not unlike something Gallagher and Lyle or even Pickettywitch might have recorded.
Chain Up The Swings is released complete with a lyric book. It is a fitting tribute to the late Michael Marra, and I’m sure her dad would have loved it. So should you.
Out Now via Inner City Sound Records