Martin Simpson: Trails and Tribulations
Topic Records – 1 September 2017
The whole package of Trails and Tribulations oozes class. The album itself is presented with a concise and very beautifully put together set of sleeve notes, with many photographs of some seriously desirable and incredibly expensive musical instruments, shot with considered skill. The image of Martin Simpson (Folk Radio UK’s Artist of the Month) holding his Brazilian rosewood PRS guitar shows a man in a very fine shirt, playing with a relaxed hand and a warm, subtle smile. Even before it is spun, the record is telling you it is a work of the utmost class, confidence and, importantly, wisdom.
Back in 2013, after a conversation with Richard Hawley, who convinced him that less is more, Simpson released his Vagrant Stanzas album, a set bold in its stripped back simplicity and one that showed the gifted string player in a different light. It was a spare group of strong tunes and interpretations from both sides of the pond, which blended seamlessly into a coherent whole. Trails is both another curve on from that record and also a companion project, comparable in that it takes the room left on Stanzas and the bold, simple arrangements and provides them with better songs, better playing and a fuller sound with a lighter touch (Andy Bell is outstanding here as engineer and producer). Simpson considers this is the finest effort yet, and it’s difficult to argue.
The mood is set quite clearly from the start, with Simpson’s version of the cherished classic ‘The Blues Run the Game’, by Jackson C. Frank. The C tuned guitar arrangement here is very beautiful and rather poignant, and it does indeed introduce the listener into the first of many songs that are not ashamed to be at points angry, pissed off, or conversely optimistic. Much like Simon and Garfunkel’s take on the song, Martin’s vocal is warmer than Frank’s and also doesn’t directly evoke the world-weariness of Laura Marling’s sublime version at the Third Man Studio in 2011, but it lends the tune a certain beauty in the face of adversity, which resonates throughout the album.
Emily Portman is one of this country’s very best folk artists, and Simpson’s version of her ‘Bones & Feathers’ is utterly magical. Like ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ later in this set, the Englishness is apparent, and the land and nature are the keys. The quick-plucked banjo line here sits so wonderfully with the soaring vocals of Martin and Amy Newhouse-Smith (with Martin’s daughter Molly Simpson providing added depth and charm) and the strings of Helen Bell. John Smith pops up too on electric guitar and adds to the track as he does to much of the set. Simpson admitted he could play the parts he gave Smith, but wisely thought John’s perspective would give texture. It seems like a prudent decision, as Smith’s playing throughout is elegant and finely judged. Sometimes he stays back and adds discreetly, as on ‘Blues Run the Game’, but sometimes, like on the judicial anti-ballad ‘Thomas Drew’, his playing kicks in half way through, even for a few seconds, and gives the gentle nature of the tune an altogether sharper edge.
The trails of the album title are never described more beautifully than on ‘Maps’, part one of two backbone tracks of this selection. The song plays out with just Martin’s voice and guitar and splices tales of an autobiographical nature with focal points from Robert McFarlane‘s Wild Places Matthew Hollis‘ All Roads Lead to France books. The track brings to mind Chris Wood’s ‘None the Wiser‘ or ‘So Much to Defend‘ songs; the naturally observant habits of a travelling musician at a key point in their life and career coming to the listener in a wonderfully acute piece of music. ‘Maps’ is a gentler and less pessimistic piece than Wood’s two, but all are powerful, effective and resilient. The companion of ‘Maps’ and another deeply grounded song is ‘Ridgeway’, an unflinching piece taken from the point of view of the land, so put upon by us. Again, the arrangement is minimal, with just Andy Cutting‘s diatonic accordion accompanying Martin’s guitar and voice. The picked line contains fewer notes than many on the record, but it’s the most measured and, with Cuttings’ (always) consummate skill, caresses this alarmed narrator’s report perfectly and honing the best song in this set. Like ‘Maps’, the track stays for less than four minutes, but it lingers long.
We’re in poaching and old English folk territory next, with ‘The Rufford Park Poachers’, a traditional tune and one of the first commercially recorded. Like many of the oldies that have survived, the song is strong and the story relevant and evocative. Nancy Kerr‘s fiddle and backing vocals really add to this one and, like ‘Bones & Feathers’ earlier, the bowed strings and vocals perfectly summon the landscape and support the story. Portman’s song, with this one and Martin’s two exemplary originals, ‘Maps’ and ‘Ridgeway’, reinforce this set and put it firmly into the memorable box. There’s not a bad song among the thirteen here, but with the quality of this select four being so high, even the very good pales in comparison. A classy, elegant and very confident set that doffs its cap to some top-drawer contributions from some of the country’s very best musician’s and that also benefits from an engineer and producer in mean form.
Trails & Tribulations is out today via Topic Records.
Order it here: http://smarturl.it/umdp3x
Martin is Folk Radio UK’s Artist of the Month for September so keep an eye out for more upcoming features.
Trails & Tribulations tracklisting (standard edition):
- Blues Run The Game
- Bones & Feathers
- Thomas Drew
- East Kentucky
- Katherine Of Aragon Interlude
- A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon
- St. James Hospital
- Jasper’s/Dancing Shoes
- Rufford Park Poachers
- Reynardine Interlude
Deluxe Edition CD2 Bonus Tracks:
- Joshua Gone Barbados
- Dillard Chandler
- Willy O’Winsbury
- Heartbreak Hotel
- Blues Run The Game Interlude
- Blues Run The Game (Radio Edit)
Order it here: http://smarturl.it/umdp3x
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas