Ma Polaine’s Great Decline – Down to the Sea
Self Released – See below
This four-track digital E.P. from blues and roots duo Ma Polaine’s Great Decline is available as part of a pre-order campaign release in anticipation of their new album, The Outsider, due for release April 2018.
Following their 2015 nomination as an emerging artist in the British Blues Awards and subsequent tours and festival appearances, and with the live band having gone through several line-up changes, what we have here, once again, is a return to their roots as a duo.
There are several areas of commonality in the four offerings presented, for example, all tracks are cover versions and all feature only the voice and double bass of Beth Packer and guitar of Clinton Hough, no place here then for harmonica and accordion which feature in their live performances. Perhaps the most striking common denominator, however, is that they are all such stonkingly-good tracks.
Those seeing Down to The Sea as the first song, and expecting either the title track from a Little Mermaid film or a version of the Robert Plant song will be disappointed. What we have here is a hauntingly delicate rendition of a Stephen Hall composition. Given Beth’s history and affinity with Cornwall, this choice has an obvious personal relevance and the beauty of her voice, symbiotically accompanied by lilting, and a perfectly understated guitar is an aural delight. My only complaint is that coming in at around two and a half minutes it was over far too soon.
Louis Armstrong made St. James’ Infirmary famous in 1928 (admittedly with Blues as an appendage to the title), but the only similarity between that version, made with his Orchestra, and the one presented here is in the lyrics. Stripped back to the sparsity of just voice and guitar, and with a slower tempo, the sorrow within Beth’s voice is palpable, Clinton’s guitar break being deft and compelling.
The third track is a version of Townes Van Zandt‘s Waiting Round to Die, which, despite the subject matter, is the most uptempo track here. The fine guitar playing, which is to the fore, nonetheless leaves ample space for Beth’s powerful, but sensitive, vocals on this narrative tale of, amongst other things, physical, alcoholic and drug abuse. This is a potent rendition of a song which first appeared on Van Zandt’s 1968 debut album, For The Sake Of the Song. Were he around today, I think he would approve.
The final track, Straight to You, written by Nick Cave is stripped of the original’s high production levels featuring swirling keys, drums etc. and is presented here, simply, with a jazz-inflected guitar being the sole accompaniment to the vocals, which once again are alluring, drawing the listener in with their warmth. ‘I am captured’ say the lyrics to this song, I certainly was. Heretical it may be to some, but to me this version trumps the original in spades.
In 1973 E. M. Schumacher published Small Is Beautiful. To paraphrase, with reference to this E.P. ‘Short is beautiful’ and I look forward to the full release next year.