Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar – Utopia And Wasteland
Rootbeat – 13 April 2018
When I reviewed Greg Russell’s most recent solo album – last year’s excellent Inclined To Be Red – one of the things that impressed me was the maturity of his voice and the confidence of his writing. Russell is still only 24, and his work has long possessed a depth of quality and assured delivery that many older artists would envy. What I didn’t know when I wrote about that album was that Ciaran Algar, Russell’s long-term collaborator, is even younger – just 22 – and that the pair’s first album was released when they were still at school. Both have since released solo records and collaborated on some of folk music’s most impressive recent releases (Algar with Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys and Russell on folk opera The Transports).
Utopia And Wasteland is, somewhat unbelievably, their fourth album as a duo. It focuses more heavily on original material than its predecessors, with singer and guitarist Russell providing the majority of the new songs, and Algar, whose primary instrument is the fiddle, contributing one of his own as well as some stunning instrumental pieces.
On top of serving a long and busy musical apprenticeship, Russell also has a degree in politics, and it shows in the way that his songs constantly seek to engage with the world in ways that are both original and morally driven. Album opener Line Two is a stark and unsentimental take on the HS2 debate, carried along by urgently strummed acoustic guitar, impassioned singing and Algar’s high-speed fiddle. It’s a powerful mission statement, full of rapid-fire couplets and a fierce dislike for the unfairness of which Billy Bragg would be proud. It is followed by Warwick Road, a group of three feisty fiddle tunes, the first of which is Algar’s own composition. It is a wonderfully evocative piece of playing, and a great example of how instrumental folk music can conjure a sense of place and the feelings that go hand in hand with that place.
Lock Keeper is one of the few non-original songs on the album. It is a cover of a song by the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers, who died aged 33 in an aeroplane fire. Russell sings it with a voice equal parts tenderness and strength, the stripped-back arrangement allowing the song’s small, expertly-drawn lyrical details to shine through, while Algar’s melancholy accompaniment never slides over into mawkishness. It is a song about home and belonging, and Russell examines similar themes in a song of his own, Seven Hills, although he approaches the subject from a different angle. The hills of the title refer to those of Sheffield, Russell’s hometown, but the song was written in Denmark, and the lyrics are an examination of the very nature of home, and of the importance of travel and of open-mindedness.
Algar is a fiddle player of great dexterity and also an arranger with a highly skilled touch: his combination of tunes in The Moving Cloud, with their Celtic inflections, suggest a musician with an ear for the nuances of the music of Britain and Ireland. But the liveliness of these tunes also goes to show just how important the sheer enjoyment of music is for this duo. They may well be talented beyond their years, but the pure joie de vivre on show is proof that they still have youth on their side. But Algar has – if you’ll excuse the pun – more strings to his bow. He is also a dab hand at songwriting, and his We Are Leaving is a startling, subtle commentary on inequality as seen through the eyes of a resident of London’s Grenfell Tower. He manages to weave poignant imagery and politics into a coherent whole, while never ignoring the more complex issues at stake.
Subtle yet experimental songwriting is something of a theme on Utopia And Wasteland, and on 1908 Russell brilliantly retouches an old broadside ballad, The Liberal March, to produce a scathing portrait of our own times. It’s carried along by a loping, jazzy rhythm section and Algar’s delicate violin. On Walter, Russell tells the story of Walter Tull, a footballer who was one of Britain’s first mixed-race professional sportsmen, and who died in action in 1918. Originally written for the Write For Walter project (whose aim is to celebrate Tull’s life through art and education), it serves as a timely reminder of how far we have come in the struggle for racial equality, and of how far we still have to go, and is another fine example of Russell’s wide-ranging and omnivorous approach to songwriting.
The album’s last cover is a version of Doug Flett and Guy Fletcher’s All Fall Down, which Russell learned from the singing of Full House. Thematically, it sits perfectly alongside the political concerns of the other songs here, and Russell’s powerful voice is perfectly suited to the deceptively simple (and deceptively rousing) chorus. It is followed by All The While, a down-tempo ballad which proves that Russell can do the personal as skillfully as he does the political. It is a quiet, raw, unexpected highpoint, and when Algar’s soaring fiddle joins the gentle acoustic guitar in the song’s conclusion it is an example of two musicians perfectly attuned to each other’s exquisite craft.
Utopia And Wasteland ends with De Gule Huis (The Yellow House in Danish), Algar’s stunning fiddle tune set, which places his own, yearning waltz alongside the fresh-sounding and brisk slip jig Timmy Collins. The result is a fittingly positive conclusion to an album that explores a formidable range of human emotions and political ideas, and one that flits easily between the minuscule detail and the grand statement. Above all, it is an album that identifies and engages with the problems of the modern world and insists that folk music still has an important part to play in confronting those problems. Algar and Russell have produced another compelling, wise, youthful statement; they are currently one of the most exciting duos not just in folk but in any genre.
Upcoming Tour Dates
13th April 2018 – HEBDEN BRIDGE, Wadsworth community centre
14th April 2018 – BIDDULPH, St Lawrences Church
15th April 2018 – HITCHIN, The Sun Inn
17th April 2018 – CHESTER, Storyhouse
18th April 2018 – EASTBOURNE, The Lamb Folk Club
20th April 2018 – THAMES DITTON, The Ram Club
21st April 2018 – Nr STROUD, Under the Edge Arts
22nd April 2018 – WALTHAMSTOW, Folk Club
25th April 2018 – SHOREHAM ON SEA, Ropetackle Arts Centre
27th April 2018 – SHEFFIELD, Live at Sam’s
For ticket links and more details visit: http://www.russellalgar.co.uk/
Photo and Video Credit: Rob at Redwood Photography