Rura – In Praise of Home
Self Released – 1 June 2018
There is something reassuringly reliable about RURA. Every three years, since 2012, they have made a new album – the latest, In Praise of Home, more than amply provides a listening pleasure that is at least consistent with their preceding recordings but also charts new territory. Fiddle player Jack Smedley kindly answered my questions about the album.
Since their last album, Despite The Dark, RURA have been named Live Act of the Year at the 2015 Scots Trad Music Awards and nominated for Folk Band of the Year in 2016. On the new record they have chosen to stay as an instrumental four-piece band following the departure of Adam Holmes at the start of last year – the current, very talented line-up is Jack Smedley fiddle, Steven Blake pipes/whistles/keyboard, Adam Brown guitar and David Foley bodhrán/flute. In Praise of Home has in many ways brought RURA full circle, as they began life as a four-piece instrumental band – three of the current line-up having been there from the start (Adam Brown joined for the previous album). Jack explained:
“Over time we came to the conclusion that if we were to replace Adam with another singer it would have been for the wrong reasons and we saw 2017 as a huge opportunity to re-shape the band. Having no songs on this album has allowed us to fill those more reflective moments with our own instrumental music, something we haven’t had much wiggle room with in the past. That’s led to a really strong feeling amongst us that we have created something that’s maybe a bit more progressive or mature than our earlier albums.”
Day One, one of the faster tracks, with a bright, optimistic fiddle and pipes driven sound, was written by Jack to celebrate this ‘new chapter and evolution’ in their sound. What for me, makes the quicker tracks particularly listenable and distinctive, is the use of David’s bodhrán and Adam’s guitar to provide a suitably restrained rhythm, which is less pulsating than is sometimes the case on similarly paced tunes in Scottish music. Lust is in a similar vein and a recent video captures the band playing a great version live in Glasgow.
The opening track, In Praise of Home, which also features on the latest Folk Show here, gives the album its’ title and was composed by Steven Blake when he was reflecting ‘the privilege of being connected to the people and places that define “home” at a time when this is not afforded to all’. It is one of two tracks to make use of spoken word, in this case opening with Jack’s grandfather, James Russell, sharing memories of his home in Montrose. Electric piano then provides a steady pulse, alongside flowing guitar and Jack’s fiddle echoing and encircling his grandfather’s words with a reflective melody line. I asked Jack how the track came about:
“We’d always wanted to get some spoken word on the album and one of those moments was the opening section of In Praise of Home which was written by our piper Steven. By sheer coincidence, I’d been interviewing my Grandfather not long before that to record some of his stories and out of nowhere he just came out with what I think is just a beautiful description of what home is to him. From that, it seemed fitting that we called the album In Praise of home.”
I’ll Never Forget is the other track that features spoken word. Composed by David and using his granny, Shelia Littlejohn’s telling of her story of emigrating from Jamaica to Scotland in the 1930s and having her 13th birthday onboard the ship. Another appropriately wistful, evocative tune is played on fiddle and whistle.
Catriona’s was written for Orcadian fiddler, and Fara member, Catriona Price after she apparently complained that no one had ever written a tune for her. David decided to put that right with a lovely melody played beautifully on fiddle and what might be both flute and whistle.
RURA’s new record is not only entirely instrumental but, unlike their first two albums which had plenty of other people’s or traditional compositions, all the tunes were composed by the band, another indicator of their collective confidence in the direction they wanted to take this album as Jack explained.
“I think it’s a reflection of where we are now both as a band and as individuals. We’ve always worked really well together when it comes to finding the right material for our sets. Everyone has a really good sense of whether certain tunes are going to work for us or not. I think with this album it was just the case that no one knew better than ourselves what we needed, so we figured we should just go and write it.”
The tunes are consistently contemplative and reminiscent. Some, almost alternately, have contrasting, pacier – but not frenetic – more rhythmic sections. Horizons Pt.2, the final track, is another very effective example of the later, employing a familiar Scottish fiddle and pipes combination from Jack and Stephen. The tune, written by Jack, was the first one written for the album and for the band it ‘set the tone for a lot of the writing that followed and went a long way to defining the sound on the record’.
Horizons Pt. 1, the penultimate track, again uses a simple electronic piano backdrop to frame an almost dreamlike fiddle segment, with the whistle picking up the refrain and seeing it through to the finish. Steven wrote the tune about ‘the indescribable: things you can’t quite express through language, that blur the boundaries between thought and feelings.’
Lastly, I asked Jack which musicians/bands inspire their playing and composing. He politely avoided naming names but told me:
“I guess we live and work in a scene in which everyone is hugely influenced by each other. We’ve grown up as a band in and around so many incredible musicians who all feature in some of the big names in the Scottish folk scene. It’s only natural that all of these musicians and bands have influenced us in some way.”
In Praise of Home represents a new, creative and entirely successful chapter for RURA. There are obvious similarities in the core theme of heritage and home with recent albums by other Scottish musicians such as Calum Stewart and Duncan Chisholm. The use of real stories told by family members from earlier generations strongly adds to the sense of place throughout. The band’s decisions to return to being an instrumental band and to write all the tunes themselves have paid off handsomely. In Praise of Home is a fresh, coherent whole that fully utilises the band’s excellent traditionally rooted musicianship and at the same time never sounds anything less than completely contemporary.
In Praise of Home is available now on RURA Music via www.rura.co.uk
RURA UK Album Launch Tour
Wednesday 6th – Universal Hall – FINDHORN
Thursday 7th – The Sound Archive – KIRKWALL
Friday 8th – The Ceilidh Place – ULLAPOOL
Saturday 9th – The Queen’s Hall – EDINBURGH
Sunday 10th – The Lemon Tree – ABERDEEN
Thursday 14th – Gateshead – SAGE GATESHEAD
Wednesday 20th – Liverpool Philharmonic – LIVERPOOL
Thursday 21st – The Met – BURY
Friday 22nd – Portsmouth Festivities – PORTSMOUTH
Saturday 23rd – Ropetackle Arts Centre – SHOREHAM-BY-SEA
Monday 25th – Cambridge Junction – CAMBRIDGE
Tuesday 26th – Norwich Arts Centre – NORWICH
Wednesday 27th – Kings Place – LONDON
Friday 29th – Eden Court – INVERNESS
Saturday 30th – Drygate – GLASGOW
photo credit: Samuel Hurt