Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy With The Gift Band – Anchor
Topic Records – 1 June 2018
A playful little double bass line introduces Anchor before the curtain raises and piano and woodwind come whirling in, but it’s Norma Waterson’s remarkably well-recovered voice, when she starts tackling Tom Waits’ ‘Strange Weather’, that really grabs the attention. Whereas Waits does the Victorian pantomime villain to perfection on his 1998 live version (when he asks ‘will you take me across the channel?’, you get the impression he might have burnt London Bridge down), Norma’s vocal is clearer and the naturalness on display is more vulnerable than Waits’ and far more effective than Marianne Faithful’s, which had a bit too much melodrama attached to it. The arrangement too, played again by the wonderful Gift band, is spot on, as it is throughout, with Phil Alexander’s spooky piano accompanied by Eliza’s strings that conjures enough of an eerie atmosphere, without overdoing it. It’s an immediate indication that this cherished English folk family has released another winning set, after Norma and Eliza’s first Gift album back in 2010 and Eliza and Martin Carthy’s lovely Moral of the Elephant in 2014. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Gift, Norma’s first vocal contribution after recovering from a long and very serious illness, was enough for this album to be greatly anticipated, which it takes in its very confident and powerful stride from the off.
Eliza takes lead vocal duties on ‘The Elfin Knight’, a rousing version of a traditional song collected by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in the fifties. Eliza has plenty of fun here, using all of her strengths with help from Norma, Martin Carthy and more to create a big song with a cracking banjo line running through and strings that crash into each other at the close to form an unnerving climax. ‘The Beast’, a beautiful stand out song written by late Scottish performer Michael Marra, slows things up considerably, with Norma soloing the vocals and violin and cor anglais creating the meat of the backing. The instruments do wonders to Norma’s voice here, either hushing to almost a whisper to bring forth an appropriate sense of quietude or winding around her, amplifying her singing. A similar effect is produced on ‘The Widow’s Party’, a version of Peter Bellamy’s take on the Rudyard Kipling ballad, with recognisable vocals, including Martin Carthy’s again, interweaving above a droning background, before strings and vocal layering slowly build a crescendo of drama. Magical stuff.
A clever piece of track arranging comes in the central part of the album, where possibly the prettiest tune forms a medley with certainly the strangest. ‘Lost in the Stars’ is a 1949 song based on the 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, beautifully written and arranged by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson for a stage musical. Here the song is a duet, sang calmly and considerately, with a leisurely piano backing and little dashes of electric guitar colouring the piece. It’s an ideal song to showcase the nuances of the two artists’ voices, subtle and clever, and it leads straight into a version of Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’ from their 1983 film The Meaning of Life. Here Norma lets Eliza take the reins and perform a fun but muscular vocal to tinkling keys and whistles. With the space theme connecting the two songs, it’s an example of the boldness in the choices of songs for this set.
It’s with a distorted ghost of vocal harmonies that KT Tunstall’s ‘Shanty of the Whale’ is introduced, a song apparently inspired by the singing of the Watersons and now coming round full circle, with the whole family on hand to provide vocal duties. The result is a very different piece to the clear a capella original sang by Tunstall. Here a simple repeated piano line runs over hums and textures and piercing violins to bring a mood of sadness and eeriness into the fold. The minimal acoustic guitar and concertina backing Norma’s lone vocal for Nick Lowe’s ‘Beast in Me’ brings lightness back, which is accentuated by some lively violin playing to form a very friendly and accessible song, creating a perfect balance alongside the more complex ‘Shanty of the Whale’.
And as this is such an eclectic mix of songs that cover many genres and decades, a new version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, sang solo by Martin Carthy, feels both fitting and surprising. I actually prefer this new vocal of Martin’s, which is slightly more sombre and settled than the original, and the minimal touches of Eliza’s violin with his familiar percussive acoustic guitar playing feels like an old jumper that has become even more comfortable. In a way, it is a key song on this set, as it demonstrates the longevity of the Waterson and Carthy family and therefore the longevity of traditional music, in this case, sang to tape by Martin, over fifty years since he first did on his debut album.
The longest song on the album comes as the penultimate (before ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ closes things) and is a terrific take on Stephen Foster’s 1849 game-changing ballad ‘Nelly was a Lady’, a song that showed both the maturity of Foster’s writing and boldly reconciled blacks and whites through a man’s love for his ‘dark Virginny Bride’. The song is played straight here, with Eliza’s fiddle line providing the tune for her and Norma to sing, with a choir coming in for the chorus, which lends it a sense of human bonding in keeping with the subject matter and apt in an unsettled age on a record that has its eye firmly on the importance of family and connections through people and cultures.
Anchor is a deeply intelligent and fresh selection of songs that could at first look hard to join on paper, but the theme (the meaning of life?) of perennial bonds through family friends and music shows its hand throughout and wraps up something very special. Another deeply satisfying, beautifully sang and arranged album of songs from a peerless musical family.
Order Anchor, released via Topic Records on June 1st http://smarturl.it/norma-eliza-anchor
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas