Heart and hands

I’m going to risk boring you with yet another post tagged Rachael Dadd.  But don’t blame me, blame Rachael – the hardest-working woman in the West Country (or should I just say the West?).  With this latest pair of Angel’s Eggs – The Hand’s Berries from the rubble and Wig Smith’s A means of escape through a hedge, on which she lends, er, a hand – I make that at least four sets of studio sessions in which she has been involved over the last year, the others being her own sublime After the ant fight and Rozi Plain’s Inside over here.

The Hand present a deliberately limited instrumental palette dominated by the kora, a 21-stringed West African instrument that Wig apparently only began playing a year or two ago.  Yet already he’s playing it as if from a boy.  Against its distinctive ring the duo harmonise, producing a sound that has same skein of beauty as Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares; without a choir at their disposal, the Hand achieve this desirable effect with just two voices, occasionally multitracked, and set against the drifting sands of that kora, or banjo, guitar, ukulele.  It’s immediately beguiling, but it also grows more impressive with each listen.

On ‘And fold’ and ‘Maroosia’ the chords are courtly and the exchanges stately; the instrumental ‘Hovering wasp’ is pastorally English while the singing on ‘What do you know’ might more typically come midway through a rousing session in Bristol’s Robin Hood pub.  But throughout, the spirit of the kora moves the locus of these recordings towards Africa and the Orient.  ‘On we skip’ is typical of the album – English folk song cross-bred with desert campfire blues to produce something that is at once gentle, dramatic and timeless.  Performance comes before perfection – half way through ‘On we skip’ there’s a sense of a threat to the recording in the form of interrupting feet and voices, but the take with the resulting stifled laugh and shushing left in is chosen because everything else about it is right.

At times the mood of the music and the space in it put me in mind of Young Marble Giants; at others, like On ‘The wind blows the same way’, Wig and Rachael duel and coalesce like Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.  Just as with that famous collaboration, Rachael Dadd plus Wig Smith equals something greater than the sum of the parts.  Those echoes or glimpses of what may or may not be influences are fleeting – they hang for a moment and then are gone, as the music moves you elsewhere.  As Betsy Dadd’s playfully rough and impressionistic animation for ‘Dove come rain’ also suggests, it’s journeying music, music for journeys, whether that’s transforming the mundanity of conveyance in a South West Trains carriage by giving familiar sights an unfamiliar tint, or slowing the speed of a Shinkansen into a meditative experience, or most appropriately bumping up and down upon one of a train of camels crossing a remote corner of the Sahara.  ‘I can listen to music and instantly be anywhere that song is trying to take me’, as Warren Harding writes in the sleeve notes for Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album.  A listen to Berries from the rubble will take you to many places, and repeated listening many more.

Naturally Wig’s kora is strongly in evidence on his own A means of escape through a hedge, although he saves up the surprise of it until the third song, ‘Ivy’, when he hits you with its majestic sound – the waveform of a harp and the punch of a guitar.  Beautifully recorded and played, the kora on this song and ‘For an apple’ sounds like it’s right there in the room with you.  And whether with the kora, ukulele or guitar, Wig’s as skilful a picker as a Spanish flamenco master, generating and altering the rhythm of his songs in a way which makes it appealingly difficult to predict where they will go next.

On ‘Sprigging him with tansy’ – not it has to be said the most inviting title a song’s ever possessed – Wig adds harmonium to the kora and what you had expected to be folk in the traditional sense turns out to be something altogether more mysterious.  Neither is ‘The sentience of toes’ a phrase to set the pulses racing, but again the music is astonishingly beautiful, cruising like a narrow boat along the rural sections of the Kennet and Avon canal.  The ghost of Syd Barrett is in the house for the miniature ‘Rosie’, while the mood-setting crispness of ‘Frost’ and the excellent ‘Keeper of the swans’ among others suggest that Wig may have a fondness for John Martyn’s underrated early albums, before he became a Stormbringer.  That’s no bad point from which to begin another unrushed and transportive musical journey.

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