Si chats with Naomi Randall and Tom Gaskell.
There’s no mistaking the earthy, folky vibe from Naomi Randall and Tom Gaskell’s collaborative debut – with a description which advises the listener that the music is “best heard through brambles in the company of small birds”, a web-page with a backdrop of golden sunflowers, and an album cover which appears to suggest the duo were borne from the grass itself – or failing that, are a representation of Rapunzel as a Siamese twin. The problem is, of course, that the word “folk” has become over-used in recent times, blithely thrown at any Joe with an acoustic guitar and a daisy in their locks, and associated more amongst younger crowds with the sounds of the Ben Howard’s and Marcus Mumford’s.
Randall (who has toured as the vocalist of Cambridge crew Somewhen) and Gaskell (a producer and technician as well as a singer-songwriter) have collaborated in a project that is something different entirely. Recorded over a three-year period at Gaskell’s own Big G Studéos, the result is similar in concept – though not in style – to Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s excellent 2012 comeback album ‘Americana’, which collected and re-imagined some of America’s most beloved folk numbers, this effort sees the duo take on a selection of European folk songs and poems with outstanding aplomb.
Opener La Pernette (English translation, “The Lost One”) is an ethereal number – more a ‘ballad’ in the traditional sense of the word than the modern. Drawing influence from the medieval French chanson de toile, the narrative concerns a weeping young girl who begs to be hanged alongside her true love Pierre who has been sentenced to the gallows for reasons untold, rather than face betrothal to another rich lord. Somewhat disturbingly, this is apparently sometimes sung by French schoolchildren. While not a happy number to open with for sure, the musicianship keeps the tragedy in the tone without allowing it to set the album off with a mournful dirge – it’s like listening to the siren sounds of a band of renaissance bards.
The duo return to the other side of the Channel for the next track, a straightforward yet intricate rendition of Appalachian favourite Nottamum Town , another medieval number, previously covered by the likes of Jean Ritchie and Bob Dylan, with cryptic lyrics that have given rise to many an interpretation – the title is thought to be a corruption of Nottingham – which involve a naked drummer and a horse - some say its about the English Civil War, and the place where Charles I began to raise soldiers. In any case, the gently stirring acoustic backdrop and soft, lilting vocals make it so listenable that fans will be making up their own theories as to the meaning.
Sleepy Laddie Door, a Gaelic-sounding lullaby sees the album at its most relaxed – with a gentle blend of the two vocals over an acoustic meadow, producing an effect a little like musical Valium, before Bluesy number, The Granta, brings up the pace a little, mixing quintessentially ‘folky’ lyrics with some of the albums best guitar and harp playing.
The listener is treated to another quality acoustic interlude, entitled Nick’s Song before launching into Lord Gregory, another tragic ballad This time an excerpt from the renowned Child Ballads collected towards the end of the 19th century – this one concerns an ill-fated young Scottish mother, whose futile attempts to find her babe’s father see her “drowned in the deep”. Opening, as the other tracks have by placing Randall’s atmospheric narrative over a simple acoustic backdrop, the song takes an unexpected and utterly spine-chilling turn at the two minute mark, into a darker, slightly disjointed second act as the spurned protagonist addresses her former paramour in a ghostly whispered verse teeming with subtle menace, “deep it is you’ll find me in a deep and silent grave…”, before finishing the track with another simple verse – practically flawless and the stand-out on an excellent disc.
Fox’s Sunday Best provides a fast-paced, tap-along interlude which makes for a jolt in tone when placed before the album’s penultimate track, Bonnie Bunch of Roses, an old Irish pro-Napoleonic ditty. Randall’s weightless vocals almost single-handedly carry the track throughout, with only a very subtle, ominous backing on a few occasions, rendering the finished piece like a sung monologue, high in restrained emotion yet remarkably relaxed, especially for a song with a heavy measure of vengeance and regret.
The closer, St Johns Raga, is a final instrumental number, finishing the album with a final dose of acid-folk that’s closer to pure 60’s psychedelic than the more traditional numbers, but no less proficient.
Randall and Gaskell’s effort is a truly rare find. Combining a wide range of instruments with a fascinating selection of source material and vocals like molten silk, the slow-burn production process was worth every second. Offered as digital download and CD for only £5 and £7 respectively (though those are only a suggested bottom line, the album is worth a lot more), those looking for either an album to share with friends over a cup of strawberry wine and a herbal cigarette, a soundtrack to their forays into medieval literature or simply something to fall asleep to will find much to appreciate here.