Landless – Bleaching Bones
Humble Serpent Records – 16 March 2018
Landless are Ruth Clinton, Sinead Lynch, Meabh Meir and Lily Power who between them cover the island of Ireland and currently enjoy the ability to record in Cork, Belfast and Dublin. Bleaching Bones is their first full-length album, following an EP released in 2014.
The opening track is The Trees They Grow Tall. There are many versions of this song about and therefore possibly a bit of a gamble making it the first on the album. However, it is a gamble that pays off. It hooks you and drags you in – either willingly or otherwise. You are sucked into a world of harmony, of a cappella, of a gentle reverb that gives space to the sound.
I first listened to this album when I took the dog out on a particularly wet, blowy day. Standing at the top of one of the hills, a gale blowing into my face, I heard
Loud, loud the wind did roar,
stormie and eerie.
These lines are from Lassie Lie Near Me, a tale of love regained but, as if often the case, open to interpretation as to whether in this life or the next. Along with Ca’ The Yowes, they form a pair of songs taken from (or ascribed to) Robert Burns and one of the striking things about these songs is that here is another example of the common ground between Irish and Scottish music.
The songs from Burns are just one aspect of the variety of sources and traditions which the group have mined. Two more of the songs were written by Liam Weldon, an Irish singer and songwriter who died in 1995. His songs can be quite blunt in that they have a tendency to hit fairly quickly and whilst he may have been known for his political lyrics, here are two with much more of a love theme. The Well Below The Valley is a version of the story of a pilgrim stopping by a well where a maid is washing, and asking for a cup of water. Full of symbolism (aren’t they all?), Weldon’s lyrics say a lot by leaving much out, stretched out by the pace of the singing, providing an ironic tone to a song that, in its various forms, has been condemned for being too religious, not religious enough or even incestuous.
The other song from Liam Weldon, Via Extasia, is a version of those ‘If you were.. and I was…’ but without the perpetual chasing to be found in some folk lyrics. Here is a paean of love, love to the end:
And if you’d fall as fall you must,
and I to be the waiting dust,
Free from sorrow, pain, or lust,
And lie, forever, truly one.
The Ballad of Springhill recounts the mining disaster in Springhill Nova Scotia in 1958. Known as The Bump, an earth tremor trapped many miners two miles underground. The area was important for mining but also known as susceptible to earth tremors. A not unusual case of capital over care and one that did not escape Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s collective pen. This version is clear, stark, the tragedy emphasised by the almost simple melody – the sort of tune you go off whistling and then realise that the lyrics are telling a tragic, all-too-human story.
The four-part harmony in this group is wonderful and is partly a product of the experience of Sacred Harp Shape Note singing by both Ruth and Lily. Doomsday and The Female Convict come from this tradition, taken from the Shenandoah Harmony and are adapted for the four singers. They have been cleverly reworked so that what is lost in volume and choir gusto, is more than compensated for in subtlety and grace.
And subtlety and grace abound in this album. There is something about voices in harmony that make you feel good – and Landless have this to perfection. There are no airs and graces, just beautiful harmonies, their sound uplifting and spiritual, even ethereal.
Order Bleaching Bones via Bandcamp: https://landless.bandcamp.com/album/bleaching-bones-2
Upcoming live dates:
20 May – Cobblestone, Dublin, Ireland