For Tricks of the Trade, the latest album from Dipper Malkin, they weave a veritable tapestry of sound that honours a long tradition, while adding the golden thread of the unexpected.
Watch Dipper Malkin play, and something may strike you as odd. “Hang on a minute!” you think, “That’s no fiddle!” Indeed it’s not. What John Dipper is playing is, in fact, a viola d’amore, a 7- or 6-stringed musical instrument more associated with the baroque period than traditional folk tunes.
At this stage, you could be forgiven for feeling slightly bewildered. However, both the instrument choice and the album make much more sense when you read the liner notes, and realise that John Dipper and Dave Malkin have both studied luthiery. They are passionate about the possibilities of a handmade instrument, and Dipper has even tuned the viola d’amore to his own particular system based on the moraharper, a Scandinavian traditional instrument, and distant cousin of the hurdy-gurdy.
‘Tricks of the Trade’ gets off to an upbeat, old-time start with Wine and Women, a swinging tune with more than a hint of the Morris side about it (put this down to the years that John spent playing for sides and his father’s dance band). Strong bowing provides a pleasing counterpoint to a nimble guitar melody, which has a real sense of rhythm. The mood gradually changes as the melody soars over insistent strings, adding charm and giving the second half of the tune a more modern cinematic sound.
After this, King Storm is a track that continues to dole out the surprises, from the assured vocals to the flugelhorn. Its few lyrics are unexpectedly poignant, and tell the story of the eponymous king, who despite his kingdom, is lonely for want of a queen (‘go to sleep my little child/it’s not his fault the weather’s wild’). The instrumentation is onomatopoeic, and as the guitar conjures up images of rain on windows, the vocals are strong and confident, with a great storytelling quality. Throw in a lyrical tune and lush instrumentation, and the track expertly walks the line between tradition and modernity.
Originally a Playford tune of the 18th century, King of Poland is the first of several successful nods to the long history of folk melody. It also showcases how this album is carefully recorded to bring out the depth of sound that the duo can produce. Drawn-out chords from the viola d’amore give a slow and meditative feel, while the traditional inspiration is undercut by some achingly modern microtuning. Keep an ear out for the figure around the three minute mark which might remind you of Bach’s ‘Bourée in E Minor’, or perhaps Jethro Tull…
Like the tracks before it, Ceri’s March/Weaver’s March is a skilful blend of the traditional and contemporary. Ceri’s March is a self-penned march with broad and confident chords from the viola d’amore, giving the tune a French-Canadian feel. ‘Weaver’s March’ is another Playford offering, and the dancing melody moves in directions which may be unfamiliar to the modern ear. The viola d’amore might be a little-used instrument in folk tunes these days, but here John Dipper shows the full range of its capabilities.
Time for the second vocal break of the album, and All Things are Quite Silent fits the contemplative mood of the majority of the album perfectly. It’s a press-gang song which was originally collected by Vaughan Williams in 1904, and here is given a considered treatment which manages to be both simple and satisfying.
Gravity/Flower of Kent provides a well-thought change of pace, and again demonstrates the fact that, just when you think you have the measure of Dipper Malkin, they will continue to surprise you. Here, the unexpected comes in the form of lilting and unpredictable tunes, slides, and the use of a drum kit. The dance-like quality of the melody is underscored in the second tune, which makes effective use of the viola d’amore and shows it working in harmony with the guitar to create a richly layered sound.
This sound is pared back in Mrs Chambers/Emmaline’s Valse, which begins with a poignant string solo, gradually becoming a tune which is both nostalgic and desperately, beautifully sad; this all clicks into place once you realise that it was written as a memorial tune for an elderly lady by a volunteer paramedic, and swooping motifs and haunting picking are used to great effect. Emmaline’s Waltz has a more positive feel, fitting the tune which John Dipper wrote for his daughter when she was less than a week old.
Fidler’s Morris gained its inspiration from a 4th century tune of the same name, but it’s taken in another direction with a soft and meditative tune which allows the guitar to step briefly into the limelight. I would have liked to have heard more tune-playing from Malkin throughout the album, as he is clearly a sensitive player, but the balance of sound is generally handled well.
The final instrumental of the album, Answerphone/Honest Intentions/Hommage á Gilles Laprise marks the return of a livelier bowing style and some definite French Canadian influences, including the use of tapping, ably provided by percussionist Corrie Dick. The set shows what the duo can do when they let their hair down, and they can’t resist throwing in a cheeky stop mid-tune, just to keep you guessing.
Their penchant for the unpredictable continues to be shown in the final track. If you were expecting to be on firm and well-trodden ground with The Parting Glass, you’d be wrong. This is the song rewritten by Dave Malkin, who once again shows his assured vocals with a charming take on the original. It retains enough of the original lyrics to be tantalisingly recognisable, and the tune is easy to sing along to. A great choice for ending both a session and an album.
‘Tricks of the Trade’ has a vision “to celebrate our inheritance through every note, and offer the next generation our contribution”. I enjoyed the whole thing, in particular King of Poland, which shows the potential of their unique blend of inspirations, techniques and instrumentation to best effect. Dipper Malkin are constantly tickling at the boundaries of a more modern sound, but there is similar tone and instrumentation across the album that may lead some to brand it as one-dimensional. Instead, it’s innovative in a quiet way, pushing the traditional roots of the genre by doing more than just adding an electric guitar.
‘Tricks of the Trade’ is an album that deserves not only to be heard, but listened to, and so is best enjoyed in small chunks, with good headphones and your drink of choice.
Tricks of the Trade is out now.
Order it here: dippermalkin.bigcartel.com