Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
Label: Iscream Music Records
Two time Best Duo winners of the BBC2 Radio Folk Awards, Roberts and Lakeman return with their fifth album, another balance of traditional and original material, Lakeman at the production helm. It’s the former that takes this out of the starting gate, a rousing jangling acoustic folk-rock treatment of ‘The Knight’s Ghost’, Child Ballad 265, on which Roberts is joined on guest vocals by Sam Kelly. The first of the self-penned numbers follows, Independence a Kate Bush-tinged, whisperingly sung piano and brass ballad that, doubtless nodding to the duo having two daughters, is about the relationship between parent and child and the latter’s need to strike out on their own.
Taking a very different lyrical path, the jaunty ‘Tribute of Hands’ with its shape-shifting melody and dancing flute recounts the legend of the founding of Antwerp, supposedly built from some soldier cutting off the hand of the giant who demanded tribute from sailor wishing to trade at the port.
There’s just one cover here, a fine and emotionally faithful version of the oft overlooked Sandy Denny classic ‘Solo’, the piano-led opening track on her third and finest solo album 1974’s Like An Old Fashioned Waltz.
It’s all change again for ‘The Poison Club’, a musically playful romp that has definite shades of the music hall influences that percolated through Sergeant Pepper as, accompanied by a cabaret club piano, Roberts invites one and all to literally choose their poison – in appropriate safe moderation - from the opiates and stimulants on offer over the counter, from hemlock and arsenic to brandy and gin, whether to get high or dull the depression.
Despite being introduced by a backwards tape, etched out on a minstrel-like acoustic guitar with a courtly Elizabethan air as Roberts’ echoey vocals soar, ‘Seasons’ harks to the well trodden conceit of comparing love’s journey to the changes of the year, Spring the mistress, Summer the dancer, Autumn the colourful emperor and Winter the showman snowman. However, if you want a more unusual twist to your lyrics, then check out the enigmatically titled ‘The Street of the Cats Who Dance’, Roberts’ vocal delivery inviting further Denny comparisons behind the piano and robust acoustic guitar on a song that, recounting how the narrator’s lover was chased to his death by a pack of dogs, was inspired by the true story of how, in 1772, Breton law was amended after a naval officer meta grizzly end at the teeth of the English Mastiffs used to police the St Malo curfew. The cats presumably frolicking in celebration.
A further historical note is struck in the following two, interconnected numbers. Sung unaccompanied (and multitracked), ‘Boney’s Defeat’ is a traditional ballad from the Roud collection also variously known as ‘Bonaparte’s Defeat’ and ‘The Isle of St Helena’, a cautionary tale of overreaching ambition. St Helena remains in focus for the self-penned ‘Old, Old, Old’. Only this time, strummed out on guitar to an Appalachian-coloured waltzing melody and Seth Lakeman contributing fiddle, the subject isn’t an exiled emperor (though he is referenced), but is sung from the perspective of Jonathan, a giant Seychelles tortoise, which, still resident on the ‘god-forsaken’ island, is, at 185, believed to be the world’s oldest living land animal, as he ruminates on the years and changes he’s seen.
It ends on a piano note with ‘Goddess Made Flesh’, a slow waltz, doubtless inspired by the premature loss of such female artists as Denny, Winehouse, Carpenter, Joplin or, from the acting world, Monroe, who died young and whose myth has grown over the years, musing on whether their star would have risen or fallen had they lived, an icon or a fraud.
It’s a beautiful end to an album that in its different musical, lyrical and narrator guises equally invites wry smiles, poignant emotions and pauses for thought. Roberts and Lakeman are very much personae gratae.
Fatea Magazine / Blues & Roots Radio