Friday, 25 September 2015

PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARTIN

CD Review

Watershed

When you have put out an album as memorable as Live At Calstock then coming up with something which is equal if not better is no mean feat. Fortunately Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have the tools, the skills and the vision to pull it off.

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin
On this their third studio album they come as a band adding James Taylor and Matt Downer.
Henry has the ability to give his harmonica a voice which is almost as versatile as his partner's. It's his gobiron which brings in the opening and title track. Not far behind is Martin's flowing and languid voice slipping in almost lazily to give this track a restful bucolic feel.
There are all sorts of sounds and incidentals going on in this song as if they are laying out their stall straight away, giving you the whole range of treats awaiting the listener.
The only element you don't know is how they are going to be combined and constructed in the following tracks. Martin has a wonderfully distinctive voice and if you want to hear it in full flight then Stones, which they included on their Calstock album, is as good an example as any. Her singing is melancholic without the melancholy, she sings as though every phrase is going to bring tears and yet there is something friendly and comforting about her musical manner. It has that deep resonance which you associate with June Tabor while at the same time having that strength and clarity you can also hear from Fay Hield. Henry illuminates Martin's singing beautifully with his sliding notes on the dobro and pedal steel. His daemon*, which in his case takes the form of the harmonica rather than an animal, is back in full flight again for Tonight. The opening strains are close to the blues holler calling the listener to pay attention to what's about to be said.
From left James Taylor, Hannah Martin,
Phillip Henry, Watershed producer
Mark Tucker and Matt Downer
His breathing through the steel reeds sounds almost like beatbox and the higher register brings memories of the great Spaghetti Westerns. Once again weaving her way through it with her liquid tones is Martin.
Henry takes to the mic as the singer for Yarrow Mill and while you can see his strength is in his impressive instrumental talents his voice is pretty good, it doesn't have the confidence of Martin but it does have a gentle quality and a lovely, melodious tone to it which is perfect for this luxurious ballad.
The understated banjo picking from Martin as she introduces her singing in Conkers brings in one of the best tracks on the album. It's like the duo are deliberately holding back their playing so you have to lean in to your speakers and listen that little bit harder, which on this particular song is no great trial.
It starts off quite light but has real meat on the bones as it develops, the ending on the xylophone though is a little out of place and feels more like an afterthought rather than a bona fide part of the song.
December starts terrifically with Henry's dobro followed quickly by Martin's fiddle playing and this was all that was needed, unfortunately the percussion does intrude on what could have been a lovely, simple and beautiful duet, a perfect case of less is more but at more than five minutes long there is plenty to enjoy.
The first thought which goes through your mind when you hear Martin singing January a Capella is why on earth doesn't she do this more often. The opening words are so perceptive too "January looks both ways. The year ahead, the year that's dying...", it's one of those things that you have always known but it never really hits home until someone like Martin writes it down.
The new album
Letter (unsent) has a brooding quality where Martin has flicked on her melancholy chip. This is a beautiful ballad where all the elements fit together perfectly and Taylor's percussion seems to add the beat of a heart under Martin's thoughtful voice and the incredibly sensuous fiddle playing then, as the track fades out you find yourself wanting it to slow down so it never actually ends.
Martin's opening of Foundling is as close to poetry as it is to singing and once again the duo's lyric writing proves they are great at storytelling, unfortunately there is too much added to the track and the sum of the parts doesn't justify the whole.
This perhaps is another Martin should have done a Capella or with just one instrument under her voice. It does have a decent segue into Lament which is a short and haunting instrumental arranged by Henry which is so well executed you want it to last for at least another five minutes.  London is quite cryptic and although does have a very modern feel to it, again it's almost like a poem set to music, it is given quite a hard edge by Martin's versatile voice and the band does paint a musical picture of the confusion, hustle and impatience of the Capital.
Through her voice Martin manages to bring that sense of isolation and loneliness many feel in a city teeming with people who by choice or design are often indifferent to their fellow man. The ending, which is almost Oriental, is a real joy to listen to. What else could follow a track called London but Taxis. They came in on a great track and they go out on one. Considering this is about modern life it somehow has the feel of a dust bowl ballad, it's the sort of song that wouldn't be out of place in the Woody Guthrie songbook.
Henry and Martin have gone exploring on this album, moving away from the traditional stories and giving a personal view of events and people around them, and with the addition of Taylor and Downer have ventured out of their comfort zone. However, they have kept that hallmark style and chemistry where from the very first notes you know it's them, and while this album travels a different path to Mynd it is nonetheless of the same high standard and if you enjoyed that album there's a real treat in store for you on Watershed.

Watershed is out now and if you want to see them live then move fast because some of the album tour dates have already sold out.

* daemon is a reference to Phillip Pulman's dark matter trilogy where every person has a "daemon" which carries their essence and character and in the books take the form of an animal which until adulthood is subject to change.