The Jellyman’s Daughter – Dead Reckoning
Boat Duck Records – 14 May 2018
It’s been around eight years since Edinburgh-based duo The Jellyman’s Daughter, (aka Emily Kelly and Graham Coe), started making music together, and three and a half since the launch of their much lauded, eponymous debut album, described by FRUK‘s Johnny Whalley as ‘fresh, personal and well worth a listen’.
With Dead Reckoning, their second release, the pair have taken full advantage of the promise evident on the first CD, and have produced a varied, extremely well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable collection of tracks that showcase not only how much they have sustained the momentum created, but also matured and developed artistically as singers, song writers and musicians.
Extensive touring in northern Europe, together with the US and Canada has obviously helped to hone their skills and broaden already diverse influences such as blues, country, bluegrass, pop, rock, classical, Americana, folk, although to gratuitously label or pigeon-hole their music would do them a great disservice, their output really is both singular and idiosyncratic, in the most positive of ways.
Taking its title from an expression used in navigation, the term is also used throughout the album as a metaphor for charting one’s way through life itself. Whilst not a concept album as such, this theme does act as a rich vein throughout the ten songs, albeit in a variety of guises, be they navigating a route through relationships and physical journeys or the more prosaic task of attempting to steer a stable course through often turbulent world events.
Initially recorded over six days at the Vada Studios in the pastoral Warwickshire countryside, a small coterie of musicians, Toby Shaer, (Cara Dillon, John McCusker), fiddle, Paul Gilbody, (KT Tunstall), double bass and Jamie Francis, (Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys), banjo, add their considerable talents to proceedings, supplementing the vocals, mandolin and acoustic guitars of Emily, and the multi-instrumental versatility of Graham on vocals, cello, mandolin, acoustic guitar, piano and e-bow acoustic guitar.
The masterstroke, however, and what, in many respects, sets Dead Reckoning apart so much from the previous release, is the decision to add a 16-piece string orchestra to some of the songs. With arrangements written by Graham, these additional cellos, violas and violins, conducted by Luci Holland, add a textural depth and intensity which creates fascinating new auricular layers of complexity. This is not, however, at the expense of their trademark harmonies, vocals and signature cello sounds, which, as previously, remain at the forefront of this recording.
The opening song, Quiet Movie, is a sheer delight. Firmly nailing their colours to the mast, the heavenly harmonies, rich cello and lightly plucked mandolin overlaid with the aforementioned lush strings captivate from the off, succeeding, as all good albums should, in leaving the listener eager for the next track. And that offering, I Hope, does not disappoint either. It’s not often that one has the opportunity to refer to alternating banjo and cello solo breaks, but that is exactly what is served up here, over Emily’s energetic vocals, in a country-tinged toe-tapper of a song.
Time changes abound in Oh Boy, a song which features both staccato and percussive cello playing effects, before the uptempo Giving Up showcases, once more, both the range of Emily’s vocals and Graham’s cello virtuosity. Title track, Dead Reckoning, takes things to a different level, compositionally. The soaring, orchestral strings, together with the soulful, at times almost jazz or blues sounding, vocals all linger long in the memory, as do the intriguing opening lines
‘I have a theory that the truth is never told
During the nine-to-five hours’
A similar effect is skilfully achieved with the beautifully sung, The Worst Of It All, lyrically a commentary on current world ills,
‘Forgotten souls have nobody to blame
But what did you buy when the blood money came?
Tightening the grip with a burning hold
Greasing up the rich to split them all’
but which is, in complete contrast to the previous song, instrumentally stripped back, incorporating understated, but none the less totally absorbing cello, fiddle and banjo solos.
The mood then noticeably shifts, as the sole instrumental presented, The Shoogly Peg, which may or may not refer to the idiomatic Scottish English phrase meaning ‘insecure or unstable’, kicks up a storm with, on this occasion, cello, banjo and double bass trading solo licks in a ‘Duelling Banjos’ fashion. Stirring stuff indeed.
The duo’s cover of Jimmy C Newman‘s country classic Cry, Cry, Darling is the only non-orginal song on this collection, and is delivered with a mournful beauty that builds to a crescendo as Emily’s heartfelt, plaintive vocal lines are counterpointed by Graham’s melancholic cello phrases drawing the full emotional passion from lines such as
‘Cry, cry darling, my eyes will cry and never dry if you should go’
The penultimate track, You Don’t Know Love, gives further evidence, should it be needed, of how well the individual components of song-writing and arranging, vocal delivery and harmonisation and instrumental acuity have been melded together to produce music of the highest originality and quality, whilst the sparse simplicity of album closer, White Shadows, suggests that were duo to decide to pursue a purely Americana or Alt-country route they would be handsomely rewarded.
Dead Reckoning is a gem of an album which warrants wide exposure.
The sleeve notes to the CD helpfully give the definition ‘dead reckoning – a method of establishing and advancing one’s position using the known and estimated distance and direction travelled’. On the evidence of this recording, The Jellyman’s Daughter, have plotted a careful course and are set fair for the greater horizons that undoubtedly lie ahead.