Orange Feather Records – 7 April 2017
Scottish acoustic duo Twelfth Day, violinist Catriona Price and pedal harp player Esther Swift, have been creating music and performing together since they met at music college. Their first release, Northern Quarter (2010), premièred an imaginative approach to music that resulted in an enthralling merge of folk and classical influences. Although the duo wrote the music for their remarkable third album, Cracks In The Room, as they toured around Scotland; when it came to recording the album, they returned to Esther’s home ground, to work at Mattie Foulds’ Caribou Studios in the Scottish Borders. It’s there they were joined by singer/songwriter/fiddler Chris Wood, in his first outing as a Producer.
Twelfth Day describe themselves as a two-person quartet, and the label seems a perfect fit. Even in their live performances, the pair appear to take on the work of four people; with the solid background of harp and fiddle underpinning powerful vocal performances that make the most of their own wry lyricism and mesmerising harmonies. In the studio, with percussion, piano and viola added to those essential elements, the sound grows even wider; evoking all the calm of an Orkney spring sunset, and all the power of a Borders burn in spate.
False Electric opens Cracks In The Room with a short overture that’s a perfect introduction to the album itself and the juxtaposition of rhythm and melody that’s one of the band’s hallmarks. Esther’s striking harp chords are contrasted by a soothing fiddle from Catriona that seems to balance, perfectly, the unmistakeable influence of Orkney’s classical and traditional music.
The opening also hints at the strength of the musical relationship, and close friendship, Esther and Catriona have enjoyed since they first met at met at St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh. As they embarked on their classical training together at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, collaborating on both composition and performance grew organically to what seems, ten years on, a remarkable level of mutual understanding. Catriona grew up in Orkney, and with Douglas Montgomery (Saltfishforty, The Chair) as tutor and mentor, enjoyed a classical training that also encouraged a healthy respect for the Islands’ traditional music.
Esther’s musical experience in her hometown of Peebles began as a chorister at the age of eight. Being equally inspired by the local singing traditions, it’s hardly surprising that there’s such a strong vocal element in Twelfth Day’s music. As Another Time follows on from the album’s opening, that unique vocal pairing comes to the fore in a song that exudes warmth and comfort in its layers of violin, and a conclusion as soft as a gentle tide kissing a deserted beach.
Taking on the role of Producer for the first time, Chris Wood seems to have come to the entirely sensible conclusion that Esther and Catriona know what they set out to achieve with their music. Rather than persuade the duo to fill out the sound with guest contributors and exotic mixes; Chris has helped them keep a natural sound that is, nonetheless, rich and carefully structured. His decision to enlist the services of Tom Waits’ sound engineer Oz Fritz has, no doubt, played an important part in the clarity and edge of the final mix.
The opening may be serene, but the fire in Twelfth Day’s soul is never far away. It’s an aspect of their music that finds its most powerful outlet in To Wait to Find, among Catriona’s rock fiddle riffs and the bassy percussion of Esther’s harp. Add to this the soft wail of elemental vocal harmonies, and it’s a powerful mix that emerges.
Twelfth day, though, are neither predominantly instrumental nor vocal – and their extensive skills in both departments never seem to vie for position in the arrangements, with those show-stopping harmonies merging perfectly with instrumental performances full of depth and colour. The third aspect of the duo’s seemingly boundless creativity, though, is the lyrical content of Cracks in the Room, which reaches a peak as the album’s title track, Cracks, shuffles its way forward. With manic whispers and a frantic urgency in the chorus, Cracks takes a deftly comic swipe at self-inflicted social pressures. Catriona shared the following about the song, the video for which premieres below. “Cracks is a song about a woman trying to mould and cram herself into what’s expected of her. We wanted to drag the agonising internal struggles we all feel sometimes, out into the light of day, and with a touch of humour, celebrate imperfection in all its beauty. ”
So you’re in that room
And what do you do
You’re with all the right people
but there’s no one new
Better keep pushing
Or you’ll face the truth
The comedy/drama is just as deftly reflected in the relentless metronomic beat of harp and the rise and fall of a sinister fiddle. The song’s place in the album serves as an early indicator that Twelfth Day have succeeded in taking a step further the moments of sheer originality and brilliance that peppered the more recognisable (but no-less impressive) folk and classical flavours of their earlier repertoire. Their 2010 début, Northern Quarter and its 2014 successor, The Devil Makes Three, teased the listener with vocal and instrumental experiments that marked the pair as a budding new force in the world of music. Sudden, unexpected shifts in rhythm combined with harmonies that, while unusual, never lacked elegance or craft.
Cracks in the Room sees those early buds come into full flower. There’s a boldness about the album that finds a voice in songs like Gold and Swilling; pouring scorn on ridiculous social norms and pointing out, with no lack of humour, that life owes nothing to fairy tales. And while we’re on the subject of fairy tales, the gorgeous bassy opening from both harp and fiddle in Great Green is matched by harmonies of similar depth in a song that holds last year’s political machinations under a less than flattering magnifying glass. Backed by a fiddle solo full of latent power, and dizzying harmonies that seem to step further and further apart, the power intensifies along with the sense of menace.
So look ye down upon us
From your great green tower and your great green life
And don’t forget to remind us
Of your great green power and out great green plight
The husky pizzicato of Olive Branch ticks like a clock, against a swooning vocal that somehow manages to convey a hint of the spiritual. In itself, it’s a nod toward the wider influences at work on the album, which shines clearest in the Latin sentiments of Stop Talking About It. Percussion and bass are there, but only to provide a gentle emphasis in a song you can almost imagine Chris Thile taking on a Bluegrass ramble. It’s little surprise that Twelfth Day cite Punch Brothers as an important influence, adopting a similarly audacious approach to song writing.
It would be easy, among all these adventurous vocals and astute lyrics, to lose sight of the technical and interpretative proficiency in Catriona and Esther’s instrumental performances. Thanks to songs like the incredibly soothing Keep Seeking, though, with its gentle polka to take us off in a dream, we’re unlikely to miss the effect of that particular spell. For Another Phase In History, inspired by their Syrian friend, Kanun player Maya Youssef; gently plucked harp strings and a soft sigh of violin open an instrumental with roots that display a fine balance between traditional and classical, and a strong voice of the Northern Isles.
Closing the album with a tribute to an Edinburgh landmark, Esther’s voice is plaintive and instantly compelling in the short, sweet and delicately structured Blackford Hill. Catriona’s fiddle is a bird on the wing, rising towards the sun, sinking down to the Braid Burn.
Cracks in the Room makes the most impressive use yet of Twelfth Day’s winning way with a lyrical hook and their quite exceptional instrumental skills. It’s a confident and gutsy performance; full of wry humour, frank observations of human nature and a clear enjoyment of song writing for the story’s sake. Twelfth Day are boldly unique, and Cracks in the Room is one of the most rewarding listening experiences to be placed before an audience this year.
Cracks in the Room is out now.
Twelfth Day Tour Dates
April (all headline)
7 – Glasgow Hug and Pint (full band show) – Ticket Link
9 – Edinburgh Traverse Bar – Ticket Link
11 – Birmingham Kitchen Garden Café – Ticket Link
28 – London The Queen’s Head – Ticket Link
For full tour dates including their German tour dates this month visit: http://www.twelfthdaymusic.com/