After thrice seeing her highly-acclaimed project, The Full English, as well as attending one of the album launch shows last Autumn at Cecil Sharp House, I have personally been awaiting the release of Old Adam with eager interest. Her band, The Hurricane Party, has reformed with a brilliant line-up of accompanying musicians: Sam Sweeney (violin, viola, cello, nyckelharpa), Rob Harbron (English concertina, violin), Ben Nicholls (double bass), Toby Kearney (percussion), and Roger Wilson (guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin), and they really seem throughout the album to do justice to Fay’s solid explorations of traditional songs.
We open up with Green Gravel, standing out already as one of the highlights. It’s punchy; it has a catchy chorus; most of all it sounds so different to anything else Fay has done previously, setting the tone brilliantly for the journey that is to come. The only thing that doesn’t work, I feel, is the outro, which feels as if it should have been much earlier in the song as an instrumental interlude. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems the anthem-esque last chorus would have had more of an impact if the song had ended there. Raggle Taggle Gypsy is the next track to follow, with violin, banjo, and concertina entwined brilliantly with Fay’s vocals before yet another catchy chorus. I always enjoy hearing Sam Sweeney’s voice doing a vocal harmony, and like its predecessor the chorus of this song does not disappoint in that regard. As it progresses the music becomes more complicated, with the occasional extended lines midway through the verse to make for interesting listening.
The first of the songs not available on the pre-release EP, Katy Catch is the first song completely new to my ears. It moves along rapidly with yet another catchy chorus, but doesn’t quite live up to the memorable standard set by the opening two songs before things slow down with Old Adam. It’s the first song so far that makes no attempt to be “radio friendly” in commercial terms, with a runtime of nearly five minutes combined with a melancholic tone reminiscent of the album’s opener. Musically, it’s delightful and different, and very pleasing to the ear. As it explores further the theme of a “battle of the sexes” present in so much of Britain’s folk repertoire, the songs builds up marvellously throughout its duration before that unexpected ending. Two tracks later, the next highlight is The Willow Glen. Having first heard it performed with The Full English I confess myself slightly disappointed with this recorded version. The first time I heard it, the song sounded so beautiful with Martin Simpson’s acoustic accompaniment, and whilst Fay’s vocals still have the same enchanting touch here, the overly-produced electric guitar of this recording just puts me off the song a little this time around.
From the very second of its opening, Queen Eleanor’s Confession caught my ear and my complete attention. The contrast from the previous piece is absolute, with an eerie setting of the strings accompanying the vocals before the rest of the band joins in. It’s another of the songs I hadn’t heard before this first full listen, but I think it definitely has the makings of a firm favourite, though yet again I feel it should have gone on longer. Following this, The Hornet and the Beetle takes a short but delightful break from melancholic sounds and serious tones, with the more unedited rustic nature that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Fay in her element: live singing. Jack Orion brings in a direct contrast to the earlier Raggle Taggle Gypsy, but with a more foreboding opening that continues throughout a fantastic track. This song really shows off the talents of Fay’s bandmates as versatile lead players as well as on the rhythm alongside her voice, as it should do in a song about a fiddler, particularly with Sam’s lead violin playing alongside Ben’s mastery of the bass; creating that dark ominous sound reminiscent of an Emily Portman composition. Long Time Ago then follows as another joyful break that will be familiar to pub-session regulars, but doesn’t do much for me other than offering a welcome singalong.
By now, I’m seeing a familiar pattern of balancing out the darker and weirder songs in placing them in between the sillier ones, and Go From My Window offers no exception. It’s a real chance for Fay to show off her vocal talents with minimal accompaniment, reminiscent of Little Yellow Roses from her first album, until the piece suddenly bursts into life. More musical mastery abounds with lucid singing as Anchor Song brings back the bass tones and odd timings we heard with Green Gravel. The concertina is certainly welcome to take the harmony limelight here, having served most of the album as a more background instrument. The raw emotion with which Fay concludes the last verse will serve as a reminder as to why she is certainly a cut above the usual singers at your average pub session, before we finish the album rather peacefully with the last two tracks.
Whilst a few of the songs do seem to be lacking somewhat in the field of offering something that truly stands out, Old Adam provides an initial listen that is both captivating and interesting. Fay has outdone herself with the album, which sounds so completely different to her previous solo work with an obvious influence from her work with The Full English. The arrangements are solid, and the accompanying musicians really were chosen wisely to bring Fay’s voice, perfectly suited to her traditional folk arrangements, to life. It’s an album that offers several surprises as it plays through, and is sure to please listeners both old and new.
For more info on Fay Hield please visit: http://www.fayhield.com/
Review by Simon James Chisholm