Saw three self-styled girls with guitars at the weekend, and each was great, and together – guitar, banjo, percussion, melody and harmony – they were stunning. It was down to members of the audience to pick out of a hat (actually a tin) who would play in what order. Each a woman with a guitar (or a shoulder-straining banjo), but each with a unique approach, and none with any honorable but musically off-putting air of having an axe to grind, of the kind that might once have been suggested by the collective tag. For them at least the battle has long since been won.
Rachael Dadd was first out of the tin. She has a voice with the timbre and purity of a bell, and you hear in it an emotional and somehow moral force. A churchbell chime, but not constrained by that, instead running musically and poetically free. You hear this on the follow-up to her piano-based Moth in the motor mini-album, the guitar-oriented Elephee EP, and well, long-term readers will know what a fan I am.
Kate Stables, the artist formally known as This Is The Kit, is Rachael’s partner in Whalebone Polly. On top there are her wonderfully windblown melodies ululating in the air, while underneath her slightly fuzzy, muddy guitar mounts a gentle attack. She plays her new single ‘Moon’, a perfect miniature, for which we the audience are invited to sound Kate’s opening note. On vinyl it’s expanded into an equally flawless full-band version; its flip ‘Treehouse’ moves with similar grace but also a countryesque twang. This Is The Kit’s album Wriggle out the restless is due for October release, and if it’s all as finely crafted as these songs, it will be great.
In a live setting Rozi Plain is perhaps a little more diffident, maybe less confident in her ability to stand toe to toe with her friends. But she shouldn’t worry, because about half of what she does is jaw-dropping in its beautiful idiosyncracy. It’s not that she’s other-worldly, as you might think from listening to her Fence album Inside over here; in fact she’s actually rather earthy. The first song she plays has the sparseness of the Young Marble Giants, but after that, she draws them entirely from a world of her own. They’re gentle and surprising and softly, almost unintentionally inventive. She played lots of new songs and I hope they all see the light of day soon.
In the second half of the evening, each of the trio played a song to a theme, and happily for a man in possession of a birdsongs blog, the theme was geese. You can catch Rachael’s and Kate’s geese over at Nightingales now; I don’t think Rozi’s committed hers to disc yet, so in its absence, I’ve settled on the lovely, spiralling ‘Roof rook crook crow’ from Inside over here.
Rachael Dadd’s Moth in the motor package is high on concept. A ten inch vinyl record with a choice of hand-printed or artist-created covers, an accompanying exhibition and a digital download which includes an animation by Betsy Dadd, it majors on Rachael’s piano-written songs, while the tour running alongside the record’s release reinforces the point that piano is her current instrument of choice. The release brings together three excerpts from her last album, After the ant fight, one from the preceding The world outside is in a cupboard, and three new songs. The stunning ‘Table’ from After the ant fight leads off, and seems to take on extra zip, punch and flight from the vinyl pressing. It’s entirely appropriate that Rachael’s sister should so painstakingly and fluidly animate that song, given its intimately domestic subject matter.
None of the other re-released songs quite match ‘Table’ for impact; solid album tracks that they are, the lesser of them seem a little exposed in this piano sampler format. To my mind Rachael is a more distinctive songwriter with strings and a fretboard in her hands; when sat on a piano stool, she strays towards territory in which ten-a-penny singer-songwriters are camped. But as if to defy me thinking that, she really stretches out over the keys on the ten inch’s title song. ‘Moth in the motor’ combines the dynamics of ‘Table’ and the animated insect chirpiness of ‘Ant and bee’ from After the ant fight, but with added Thelonious Monkiness, and maybe dashes of Laurie Anderson and Jane Siberry. Well worth seeing Rachael attack the ivories on this song in a live setting, I should think.
The covers are great – a fabulous range of designs and takes on the title – though you may balk at paying some of the quoted prices. I plumped for a cheaper Dadd design and got a rather fetching purple deer-owl hybrid, but if I’d had money to spare for one of the artist creations, I’d have gone for Emma Lawton’s, as featured at the head of this post, for it too is high on concept.
Rachael Dadd and Kate Stables (of This Is The Kit) have teamed up once again as Whalebone Polly to tour and to release an EP, Taproot and sill on Dreamboat Records. Though the songs are less harmonically driven and worked through than those on 2005’s Recording with the window open, and more individually characteristic of their respective writers, it’s nevertheless another fabulous record, thematically complete its own right.
Kate’s ‘The turnip turned’ leads off and stands out. Its subject is of somewhat greater complexity than a turnip. Though centred on a particular life event, the song remains mysterious and all the more deeply affecting for that – as if the words, and what they refer to, could stand for any listener in any situation. Like the EP as a whole, it moves from the specifics of individual experience outwards to our connections with our ancestral roots and the soil, connections which, however far we move or stray from them, underlie who we are and what we do. And the music is beautifully just-so, full of wonder, and iced with a touch of the sepia-toned brass-band-brass that helped make ‘In the neighborhood’ one of Tom Waits’ most heart-warming songs.
Both ‘Good good light’ and ‘Window’ see Rachael in a locked-down groove of rhythm driven by banjo, bass and percussion. Hers are 3:00 a.m. thoughts scurrying round a brain in a body that just wants to sleep; the songs reprise the cyclical variations on themes that made After the ant fight such a great album.
The second of Kate’s pair of songs, ‘And sometimes the sea’, crystallises the EP’s themes. Food, water, shelter, light, love, and the freedom to feel the wind on your face and the tide wash your toes. It’s elemental stuff, yet exquisitely poised – a tricky combination to pull off, but Whalebone Polly do.
A follower of Rachael Dadd and Kate Stables might begin to take the beauty of their voices – individually and in unison – for granted, until the sheer whistleable, singable nature of their songs tempts him to try and add his own flat monotone to the mix. Rachael and Kate are writing better-crafted songs, sung more beautifully, than any comparable solo or double acts, and it remains a mystery to me why they aren’t more celebrated.
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.
In his comment on my first post about Rachael Dadd back in August 2007, my truffle-hunting friend and honorary professor of pop Tim Hopkins said that ‘Rozi Plain looks like she’ll do something jaw-droppingly great in a minute’. Well, just as Tim foresaw, Rozi Plain has indeed done something jaw-droppingly great, and it comes in the form of her long player for Fence, Inside over here. In those rare spaces that the business of Christmas left, I played it whenever I could. Now that the decks have been cleared, I finally have the chance to tell you about it.
Jaw-dropping in more ways than one. It’s the disc’s second song, ‘Stolen shark’, which makes you sit up and pay close attention. The opening line – ‘It all came from snagging my jumper on its tooth’ – hooks you as surely as the character in Rozi’s narrative has been clamped and chomped by her fictional shark. A wiry electric guitar chases down acoustic rhythms as the tale unfolds and Rozi and Rachael Dadd harmonise over the character’s grisly end – ‘I could feel every bite cuz I was still alive’.
‘Stolen shark’ is followed by ‘Barbs and velcro’, which reinforces the notion that Rozi’s voice has similar tints and shades as Karen Dalton’s, though inevitably she does not yet sing with the same weight in her voice. Conversely ‘Barbs and velcro’ is also as close as Rozi comes to straight-ahead pop, the song pushed along by a joyful running rhythm which is at perfect odds with the blueness of the melody. There are a lot singers being touted about now for their ability to be pop but something other, or idiosyncratic but sufficiently mainstream for mass consumption, so many that it’s hard to get around to hear them all and establish what I strongly suspect to be the case – that few if any are half as melodically and harmonically gifted as Rozi Plain. Not only that, but also as undistracted in their focus on the music, by which I mean that if you took away the world, Rozi would deliver you more or less the same sort of song as she does with the world and all its distractions very much in place.
Her music has a coastal sense of space and time – you can almost hear the slow lap of waves on ‘Foot out’. That sense of unhurried openness also comes through on the letter-delivery blues of ‘The post’ in spite of the cryptic lyric. ‘Knives and forks’ too has a steely metronomic tick, a clockwork flow against which Rozi sets more deliciously dreamy harmony. Lyrically and stylistically ‘Roof rook crook crow’ is not far off something that Kevin Ayers might have wittily interpreted from a dream he had in 1969, or that Syd Barrett might have conjured out of his confusion around the time of The madcap laughs. But neither of those gents could layer up harmony like Rozi Plain, who turns her song into an ever-ascending spiral iced with François Marry’s trumpet.
Finally, there is to finish, ‘Fruit’, a song whose pointedly mundane lyric Rozi has given an impossibly sad melody. Amazing, what you can do with two voices, a guitar and clarinet, and a shaky pot of salt.
You have the chance to catch the magic combination of Rozi Plain and Rachael Dadd at the Slaughtered Lamb in London on Thursday 29th January.
‘The form of countless objects is printed blue on your mind. Take them away at any time and your world would be in pieces, but conversely, in a state where it could be rebuilt.’
Anyone who’s lived alone for a time in a country other than the one in which they grew up – particularly one where the language is not their own – will recognise the feelings that spring from the songs on Rachael Dadd’s new CD After the ant fight. Her time living in and touring Japan has had a marked effect lyrically and, in an indirect sense, musically. Themes of isolation, disorientation, the intensity of emotion generated by separation and distance are all captured here in songs recorded while Rachael was back home in Bristol. ‘Table’ in particular is stunning, setting a concise lyric about clinging to the memory of solid objects and familiar shapes against a Philip Glass-y piece of minimalism that rises to a peak on the back of a just-so mix of piano, harmonium, clarinet and one-take drums, then falls away again. It’s the equal of ‘The wires’, one of the stand-out songs on her last album The world outside is a cupboard, and conjures living ghosts into being as effectively. Rachael’s song writing is atypical – the obvious moves are avoided in favour of the element of surprise, and where others would give the peak reached in ‘Table’ another run through, she chooses not to repeat it and so gives the song the kind of freshness that draws you back for another listen, and another.
Its sleeve appropriately dressed in exquisite ant-depicting needlework, After the ant fight continues where The world outside left off in terms of the metaphorical use of the natural world but in other respects, Rachael has moved on. While The world outside was carefully considered and had the feel of a solo work in spite of its contributors, the new set has a more immediately collaborative feel, with the Bristolian crew of musicians charged with helping Rachael bring her songs to life. You sense a need or desire to bag these songs quickly, without overcooking them. There’s an instrumental richness here and a spontaneous feel to the recording which lifts songs that would have been strong had they only featured voice and piano alone, as others left in that state prove.
The traditional song ‘Two sisters’ shows she can match or out-folk any of the few singers who have been lucky enough to garner some attention outside of the confines of the folk / 21st century folk circuits; it’s beautifully sung and played. She follows it with something adventurously untraditional in the form of ‘Ant and bee’, a successful attempt to break open a new seam or tunnel, leading her impromptu Penguin Café Orchestra along a winding lyrical and melodic path with a vocal that seems deliberately to push away from the way she usually sings. The result sounds roughly like what you might get if you crossed Mummer– or Apple Venus-era XTC with the Björk of Vespertine, and it’s as inventive as either. The metaphorically rich lyric encapsulates the expansion of her vision – ‘everything you thought you ever knew will be changed for good’ – and gleefully concludes with a personal revolution: ‘These six legs they’ll carry me / I’ve turned my back on my queen’. (You can imagine Andy Partridge also dwelling lyrically on ants and bees; after all there was a ‘Ladybird’ on Mummer, while Apple Venus volume two was called Wasp star.)
The denizens of the Penguin Café return for ‘And so it wells up’ where Rachael’s guitar sounds as much like those of the desert wandering Tinariwen as anyone’s. This, ‘Ant and bee’ and many of the other songs (‘After the ant fight’, ‘O wind’, and ‘Following the geese’ recall the orchestral and emotional precision of her Songs from the crypt but all embrace a wider vision of the world and a more confident sense of what can be achieved artistically with a song.
Understandably Rachael Dadd is concentrating on Japan where there is a willing record label (Angel’s Egg) and an appetite for her music, and where perhaps the beauty of it is appreciated for what it is; the kind of cultural overtones that may prejudice how she is perceived over here are not an issue. Even so, she really deserves a larger audience here than is likely to be generated by the support on a national level of Whispering Bob Harris alone. Go and see her play when she does come back home.
In the final part of Krystof Kieslowski’s Three colours trilogy, Red, there is a dazzling opening sequence in which the camera follows red cables from the starting point of a phone call made in Geneva through switches and under the sea to England, only for the call to be rebuffed at the last by the flashing red light of a busy telephone. It’s imagery that ‘The wires’ by Rachael Dadd from her new album The world outside is in a cupboard brings to mind. Wires are also what puppeteers use to manipulate their creations – another recurring theme of Kieslowski’s films – but here I think we’re talking about wires and distance, like the ‘Lines running north’ that the young Del Amitri sang about. ‘The wires’ has all the elements that go to make up the best of Rachael Dadd’s songs – the trueness of the singing voice, the rising, reaching melody and harmonics, the gentle dynamics which occasionally engulf you, and unsparing personal observation. In its execution, though, this song alone establishes a connection to the way Minnesotan trio Low make their music – there is that same purity of purpose.
Listening to ‘The wires’ I can’t help thinking of Red; listening to the rest of The world outside…, I can’t help thinking of a record called Blue, a record I admire more than like, for all the listening I’ve given it. But The world outside… is a warmer kind of self-portrait than Joni Mitchell’s, though it travels from January blues to the autumnal end of a day’s work, from fear and bravery to a state of golden-maned happiness. The last is a token of an engagement with the natural world that belies the album’s title, for throughout, there’s a weight of animal threatening to burst out of the cupboard, or into the world. Not unconnected with this, there are moments – ‘And when I cannot dream’ is one – where The world outside… comes close to the mellifluous, pain-tinged joy that Tim Buckley perfected on Blue afternoon.
But Rachael Dadd is obviously not in thrall to the blues of Tim or Joni any more than she could be to the red of Kieslowski. Though her music occasionally tips its hat to tradition, hers is folk music which is not mired in the past. It has the quality of, if not timelessness, then the closest any of us mortals can come to that, either as listeners or music-makers. She shows no sign of the quirkiness which undoes some who do things the Fence Records way. The world outside… may not be pop in its immediacy, but it is immediately affecting. Like her recordings with Kate Stables and Virpi Kettu as Whalebone Polly, it doesn’t necessarily imprint itself on first listen, but instead floats and flies free. Listening brings its rewards. Songs like ‘Caught in the weight’, ‘Hawk for a heart’ and ‘The party’ share unassuming beginnings, but where they travel melodically and harmonically remains surprising. Her music retains the simple acoustic warmth of previous releases, though added now are loops and rumbles of piano, while ‘Ships’ has a metronomic beat and ‘Bold bear’ an electric guitar; but at root there is a familiar and welcome sense of space. To my ears Rachael Dadd is more Leaf than Fence, with a musical sensibility as fine-tuned and essence-seeking as Colleen, although the latter is a composer of quite distinct minimalist instrumental pieces. There is even a resemblance between the artwork for Everyone alive wants answers and The world outside is in a cupboard.
Rachael Dadd never pretends to be something she isn’t. There is no bar code on this CD. In as far as it’s possible for it to be so, this is music unaffected by the commercial processing of the music business. You can’t get The world outside… on Amazon (instead you need to go here, from where it’s but a short hop to the Hand – Rachael in combination with kora wiz Wig Smith – whose excellent Berries from the rubble EP is also well worth hearing). That’s alternately frustrating and partly why the music of Rachael Dadd appeals as much as it does. I hope her audience continues to grow, slowly but surely.
Up at Dundry, by St. Michael’s church, whose late gothic tower is given a Victorian echo by the edifice dedicated to Cabot on Brandon Hill down in the city, you can look to the north and see the whole of Bristol spread out beneath you. The view flattens out what is a hilly city when you’re cycling or walking around it, but it’s good to be able to see the whole of it at once. Long since an ex-Bristolian, I often imagine myself there, viewing both the space and the time, two panoramas blended into one, governed by squalls of rain and snow, periods of unending grey and, at the last, Redland sunshine.
I went to Bristol for friends already encamped in the south west’s capital, and I went there for music – for the songs those friends sang, for the pop idealism that revolved around Sarah Records, and for the cutting edge of Massive Attack. These days, it always warms the heart to hear of sounds around which scenes not dissimilar to my own must revolve. There’s Gravenhurst, whose thunder is quieter than Warp label mates Maxϊmo Park, but much worthier of attention. I hope something comes of the Gloaming, Benjamin Shillabeer’s follow-up to the Playwrights. And – with thanks to Tim, one of the broader circle of those encamped friends, for pointing me in the right direction – I can’t wait for the new album by Rachael Dadd.
Part of a sort of Bristolian version of the Fence collective, with an outpost or original base in Winchester, Rachael has previously released three long-players forming a set of songs which seem to evolve according to the musicians with whom she teams up – one song, ‘No sleep on the meadow’ appears on all three. When the filigree and curlicues of Joanna Newsom’s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks become too much, as from time to time they do, then hers is the voice and the music to go to. Take Songs from the crypt, that being the space beneath the church in which she recorded with the Missing Scissors, a mini-chamber orchestra of strings, harp, and clarinet. Her voice is straight and true, within it only the barest tremor, unless she forces loudness, as she occasionally does. It sits atop the Missing Scissors as a perfect tonal fit. The orchestration is perfectly integrated and the results are thrilling, especially on the sequence ‘No sleep in the meadow’, ‘The scientist’, and ‘What we wait for’, which in a folkier way is as great as the heights reached by the Rachel’s collective on The sea and the bells or Selenography.
These three and other Songs from the crypt first appeared on Summer / autumn recordings, where it’s just Rachael’s voice, harmonica and guitar – and barking dogs and bird song. Rachael sings and the birds sing back (let’s forget about the dogs). It’s hard to call between the simpler and the orchestrated versions, but ‘My wealth that is you’ is such an intimate, domestically beautiful song that it works best here. Occasionally she guilelessly turns a holiday or the taking of a photograph into song, but mostly they’re poetically conceived, with lines as striking as ‘Ten thousand seagulls circling high / drawing threads around you and I’.
In between Summer and Songs Rachael played as Whalebone Polly with Kate Stables and Virpi Kettu, all three contributing songs. When Rachael adds her clarinet to the brew, Recording with the window open has something of the legendary Emily of ‘Boxing Day Blues’ and ‘Ocean’ about it, but predominantly it’s Kate’s banjo which sets the tone and somehow americanizes the old Wessex folk harmonising. It takes a little more listening to come through, but come through it does.
Next up, The World Outside is in a Cupboard, which often is a good place for it to be. Meantime there’s dates in September and more in November, when the album sees the light of the day. I confidently predict another post around about then.