Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp – The Poacher’s Fate
Self Released – 25 November 2017
We live in a time of plenty, studios with a million effects that come in a box, musicians who could play everything better than their mentors by the time they had reached puberty. There’s music everywhere and most of it is pretty good, there’s no excuse for it not to be, we have endless resources.
And so to be heard above the clamour the singer often has to shout, they have to be more talented or more outrageous or have better dance beats or samples or whatever it takes to be noticed.
And sometimes shouting just adds to the noise.
For their first full album recording, Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp seem to have successfully ignored any pressure to become the next big thing. ‘The Poachers Fate’ could almost have been made in the early 70’s. On the inner-sleeve, they gaze out from their home rich in cats, instruments and corn dollies. No trace of any flat pack furniture or mobile phones anywhere, Kemp is even wearing a suede jerkin, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Peter Bellamy in the background.
The couple met at library school, Smyth is now Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and hopefully, they will realise that the best chance of ever getting pensions will be to stick with their day jobs. The listener will benefit too because on ‘The Poachers Fate’ Smyth and Kemp have produced an unapologetic album of English folk that seeks neither to flatter or deceive but, almost by accident, is hugely entertaining.
I suspect that Kemp has never been East of England Banjo champion or even runner up but it is really refreshing to hear his simple backing on a couple of the tracks. It’s not often you could describe banjo either sensitive or spare but Kemp manages to achieve both. The couple have a modest palette of instruments, cello, banjo, guitar and a couple of squeezebox sounding things, they are all used strictly as necessary. So modest are they about their instrumental prowess that they are not even credited in the liner notes. There is even a couple of instrumental hornpipes thrown into the mix which are just fine.
Presumably, given their backgrounds, the duo like nothing better than sourcing new material. They’ve come up trumps with their choices here, the only song I can remember hearing before was the one we all hoped never to hear again namely ‘Wild Rover‘. In the hands of Kemp and Smyth, it’s a mournful version sung by Kemp which apparently takes the song back to its temperance roots, suffice to say, it’s a lot better than the version you know already.
Elsewhere it’s business as usual, women dress in ‘ man’s array,’ hearts are broken and murderers are hanged from a tree but not until they have issued a warning to other murderously inclined young men. The latter song ‘Murder in the Red Barn‘ is a chilling tale, again sung by Kemp, if Nick Cave ever attempts Murder Ballads 2 he should look here first.
So, twelve proper tracks, one of them an instrumental and one of them actually a new song which was written by Smyth which slots in seamlessly. If anyone was to ask you what English folksong sounds like, simply playing them any track on this record would answer the question. There are acapella songs, duo songs and songs backed with various instruments. The inclusion of ‘Carrickmannon Lake’ slightly spoils the overall feel for me with its Irish origins but it’s a predictably strong performance from Smyth.
For all their collective strengths the one thing that drew me back time and time again was Smyth’s singing. In the days of X Factor and The Voice great singing has become synonymous with over-emoting and vocal histrionics. It’s almost difficult to think of Smyth as a great singer because she doesn’t do any of these things, but she really is. If you want proof then just listen to the title track where she negotiates the words and the tune with both strength and agility, remarkably Kemp’s voice shadows her all the way. It’s an astounding performance that does not attempt to impress. There is a sense with these recordings that the songs are all important, the production, playing and singing serves to glorify the song rather than flatter the participants. It could be dour and worthy but it isn’t. This is an engaging and charming piece of work.
The Poacher’s Fate is a labour of love, naive in the best sense of the word. The pair have scraped together some leave from their day jobs and will be undertaking a mini-tour in November. Let us hope that life on the road won’t turn their heads and encourage them to turn professional, we need more music like this.
Pre-Order The Poacher’s Fate via Bandcamp: https://laurasmythandtedkemp.bandcamp.com/releases
Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp Upcoming Gigs
Cecil Sharp House, London, UK
Wednesday 25 Oct 2017
Oakes Barn Pub, Bury Saint Edmunds, UK
Wednesday 15 Nov 2017
Mill Race Folk, Bromham Mill, Bedford, UK
Saturday 18 Nov 2017
Heath Street Baptist Church, London, UK
Saturday 25 Nov 2017
Cross Keys Folk Club, Saddleworth, UK
Wednesday 29 Nov 2017
Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp featured in our Folk Show Episode 11. Listen again here.