Monday, 13 October 2014


CD Review

Amidst Fiery Skies

If you are going to front your band with a female voice then you should really find one that stands out and has gorgeous and mesmerising tones, but then The Willows already know this because they have Jade Rhiannon's.

The Willows Ben Savage, Stephen Maclachlan, Cliff Ward,
 Jade Rhiannon, Prue Ward.      Photo by Profile Pictures
As the opening track of their new album unfolds you get a feel for how the sailors of legend felt when they encountered The Sirens, it is just so easy to fall under the spell of Rhiannon's melodious tones.
It could well be something supernatural because the singer sounds like quite a few female folk singers and yet she sounds like no one you have heard before.
Rhiannon has a voice that can and will launch a thousand superlatives and adjectives and is a real gem on an album which projects some top notch music from an impressive pool of genres.
The fiddle playing on the first, Red Sands, and subsequent track, Roseville Fair is as sublime as The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Red Sands is a beautiful opening track and while it gives you a hint of what is waiting for you on the rest of that album, it's really only the tip of the iceberg because there is so much more to discover. The melancholy tones of Rhiannon greet you and you are hooked.
The banjo and dobro get an outing with Roseville Fair and Rhiannon's raspy tones are given a lovely lyrical lift through the harmonies of Prue Ward.
The most noticeable facet of this track is how seamlessly the strands of music from the variety of instruments meld and create a wonderfully harmonious whole.
It's open to discussion, and there is little rationale for it, but there are shades of the late Meri Wilson, who had the novelty hit Telephone Man, as Rhiannon sings Johnny Robinson.
Rhiannon raises the pitch of her singing and gives it a breathy edge as the tune dances along at quite a pace.
Fiddle player Prue Ward
One again Ward and Rhiannon work beautifully together for the country-style ballad Our Road.
The lead singer's versatile voice takes on a much more mellow and all together gentler tone bordering on the vulnerable. The main instruments of the fiddle and guitar add the colour to the proceedings.
The Maid of Culmore is a beautifully traditional song which is made all the more so by Rhiannon's soft, feminine and almost classical singing which has the qualities to enthral everyone who hears her.
And like the previous tracks, the precise fiddle playing and Ward's harmonising adds such depth to this peaceful tune you will want to play it over and over again. Americana takes over with Shores and the men take centre stage for this bouncing migration song which is carried along oh so gently underneath by Ben Savage's haunting dobro which is itself entwined with an ever so subtle banjo accompaniment. Handing back to the ladies, Rhiannon comes in sounding like a a slightly less raspy Marianne Faithfull with another traditional tale from the old West, Good Loving Trail about life on the route between Texas and Wyoming.
It's a superbly constructed bluegrass sound with a cheeky, almost bedtime story ending.
Rhiannon ups the tempo with Daughter, creating a really upbeat tune that's made for dancing around a blazing bonfire on an autumn night under a full moon. The Celtic feel provided by the rasping fiddle which tips over occasionally into a jazz rhythm adds real colour to the tune.
The Willows' new album
The Visitor is something of a commercial sounding song, which still keeps its strong folk roots and is very reminiscent of something from The Corrs when they were in their heyday and everyone was Irish.
The lead singer slips almost into choirgirl mode for the simple but nonetheless rich ballad Outward Bound which has a minimalist accompaniment that never intrudes on her singing, but you kind of think it would have been even more effective and evocative done a cappella.
But regardless of instruments or not this is one for just enjoying her voice washing through your musical psyche as she gently takes the narrative to its conclusion.
On the final track there is the onomatopoeic opening of Wave where you get a classical feel from the fiddle until Rhiannon's voice rides in over the top of the banjo like a gull skimming over the rippling ocean.
The Willows, another of the breed of folkestras which seem to be proliferating, have that incredible ability to make excellent music out of whatever is to hand. Whether they use one instrument or everything at their disposal they blend the lyrics, melodies and harmonies seamlessly in a way that is just so enjoyable to listen to. It doesn't do any harm to have Sean Lakeman on the production team either. The five piece Cambridge outfit know music, they know how to make it and even more so they know how to craft it into something beautiful and a joy on the ear.

Amidst Fiery Skies is out now on Elk Records