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.
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.