Salt House – Undersong
Self Released – 2 February 2018
There’s been a five-year wait, and a change in personnel, since Scottish trio Salt House released their exquisitely crafted debut, Lay Your Dark Low. With a Celtic Connections launch last weekend on 27th January, and a general release today (2nd February), the wait is over; as Salt House release their second album, Undersong.
In 2013 Ewan MacPherson (Shooglenifty) and Lauren MacColl (RANT) teamed up with singer songwriter Siobhan Miller for an album of rare beauty, that was able not only to take traditional songs in new directions but pair them with their own contemporary songwriting. In 2016 singer songwriter Jenny Sturgeon stepped in to replace Siobhan Miller in the line-up. Jenny’s second solo album, From The Skein (reviewed here), was a skilled and fascinating weave of traditional and contemporary songs, a work that easily illustrated why Jenny was the perfect choice to join Ewan and Lauren in Salt House.
Jenny does far more than replace Siobhan’s soft and expressive vocal, which she does, of course, admirably. She has also brought her own impressive song and music writing skills to the band, along with an emphatic and influential love of nature. These elements combine to provide Undersong with an instant appeal in the opening track, Old Shoes. There are too few songs that truly celebrate the joy of walking; but amid the elegance of Lauren’s fiddle and the richness of Ewan’s vocal harmonies, Jenny’s infectious fondness for simply getting out there and wandering does just that.
A deep love of the natural world is no new thing in songwriting. It’s almost 250 years since Robert Burns wrote the much-loved Now Westlin’ Winds, and it’s from that tribute to both love and nature that Jenny draws inspiration for Charmer, her own love song to nature. With a reverent harmonium and Lauren’s viola for backing, her own poetic gifts shine through…
Among the beech and larches
Where the lichens fall like hair
A living breathing mind
Along with a new member, Salt House seem to have gained an added confidence in their ability to present their music solely as a trio. The line-up for Lay Your Dark Low included a small number of extremely talented guests, but Undersong features only Lauren, Ewan and Jenny; making the most of not only their peerless instrumental skills, but also taking full advantage of all three members’ considerable, and often understated, vocal talents.
The Sisters’ Revenge sees Ewan’s melody bring to life an epic Scandinavian tale of murder and vengeance, as collected by 19th Century writer Robert Buchanan. It’s a fascinating story, concerning two sisters preparing to avenge their father’s murder –
Slim and tall, with downcast eyes,
They blush as they fasten swords to their thighs.
The details of the deed itself aren’t revealed until nearer the end of the tale, relayed in a fine vocal duet from Ewan and Jenny, with haunting fiddle from Lauren; who also takes the melody for a spine-tingling outing on viola.
Ewan’s exceptional album from last year, Fetch! (reviewed here), was an entirely instrumental affair, but for Undersong he’s also proven his worth as a songwriter. Lay Your Dark Low takes its title from the first Salt House album, with uplifting guitar and some perfectly matched harmonies from Jenny, in a song where structure and substance draw unavoidable and favourable comparisons with both Nick Drake and John Renbourn. The complex timing and sonorous vocal of Slow Fields of Home have a similar effect, enhanced by a barely perceived, almost sub-conscious shruti-box drone throughout. Jenny takes the lead vocal for Ewan’s song, Staring at Stars. It’s a voice that’s at its clearest and most enchanting with naught but Ewan’s soft guitar accompaniment to begin with. By the time Lauren’s fiddle, and Ewan’s vocal harmonies join in, the whole effect is an utterly entrancing prelude to the soul-stirring depth and beauty of the closing instrumental section and chorus.
Each one of the trio has found archive sources of inspiration, and the results are remarkable. Lauren turned to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, with layers of plucked strings and soft vocal providing a new setting for his ode to indecision. The arrangement gains stature with guitar, more adamant rhythms, and strings that can be softly strident, or evoke a sweeping sadness to echo the melancholy vocal. Jenny’s music for Turn Ye To Me adopts a more lively pace but has a similar sense of sorrow, enhanced by a mournful viola and a deep bass beat on the guitar. Bowed mandola helps Ewan set a mediaeval tone for the Dorset tale of love, falsehood and desertion on I Sowed Some Seeds.
Starting with a beautifully timed, unaccompanied, vocal from Jenny, the album draws to a stirring close with its title track – Undersong. The pace of the vocal provides fiddle and guitar with a rhythm to build on; an opportunity they seem to relish. Following a delightfully understated call and return between soaring fiddle and heartening vocal; intricate layers of fiddle, viola and guitar close the album with Ewan’s sprightly melody Sunrise In The River.
Music of this quality can’t be rushed; there’s a depth of understanding here that represents a lasting commitment to traditional music from all around the UK. There’s far more to Undersong than the time Salt House spent recording on the tiny Hebridean island of Berensay, with seasoned producer Andy Bell (Martin Simpson, Songs of Separation, Furrow Collective) at the helm – that could be seen as a flowering. There’s clearly been a period of careful nurturing and refining, both in the studio and before live audiences. The result is Undersong, a highly accomplished album of wonderful music, that singles Salt House out as a trio of exceptional talent.
Undersong is out now via Bandcamp: https://salthouse.bandcamp.com/album/undersong
Undersong Album launch Dates:
19th Feb – Green Note, London. Tickets
14th Apr – Eden Court Theatre, Inverness