Album of the Week, July 13: Once In A Blue Moon by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

watersonlOnceinaRBHSJDIDBadgeSiblings Lal and Mike Waterson brought the band back together with their stunning one-off project Bright Phoebus. The Watersons, including sister Norma and adding her husband, folk legend Martin Carthy, so enjoyed working together on the project that they restarted their recording career. Over the next two decades they recorded four wonderful albums of traditional music and a number of side projects. In 1996 the extended family produced three amazing albums: Norma Waterson’s transcendent solo debut, the first disc by Waterson:Carthy (featuring Norma, Martin, and their daughter Eliza Carthy), and Once In A Blue Moon. Lal had compiled enough original songs to record a new disc; her son, Oliver Knight, provided flawless musical backing and production, resulting in a disc that rivals Bright Phoebus for originality and sheer brilliance.

Title Once In A Blue Moon
Act Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight
Label Topic Release Date 1996
Producer Oliver Knight with John Boyes (track 3) and John Tams (track 9)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. At First She Starts
  2. Flight of the Pelican
  3. Stumbling On
  4. How Can I Leave?
  5. Altisidora
  6. Dazed
  7. Phoebe
  8. Cornfield
  9. Midnight Feast
  10. So Strange Is Man
  11. Wilsons Arms
  12. Her White Gown
  13. Some Old Salty

The album is less folky and more minimalist than its predecessor. Knight’s production work has always focused on the spaces around the notes, and the uncanny musical connection that he has with his mother makes that approach shine. The only other regular performer on the disc is reed player and occasional singer Jo Freya, a long-time family friend and perfect foil for the stark soundscapes created by Knight’s guitar work.

Things open powerfully with At First She Starts. It’s a typically enigmatic Lal Waterson lyric, evocative and embracing. Charles O’Connor lends a nice fiddle part to the mix, enriching the engaging energy of the song. While all the songs work on multiple layers, the balance of the tracks fit into three categories.

Most like her songs on Bright Phoebus, three of these are naturalistic vignettes. Flight of the Pelican is a yearning song of peace, freedom and love, achingly crafted. Phoebe is a dark, mysterious meditation that shows off Knight’s contributions nicely. It segues into the nostalgic Cornfield, a track that manages to be both wistful and joyous.

Three more tracks are snapshots, self-contained stories that rise above their literal framework. Her White Gown feels like a generational narrative, a sequence of mothers and daughters seen through a singular prism. It features one of Lal’s most subtly compelling vocals. Dazed is the lone track with an outside writer, based on a poem by Rimbaud. Capturing hungry children looking through a baker’s window it’s perfectly structured and the Waterson/Knight arrangement underscores the lines of the poem perfectly — it feels as though Rimbaud wrote it for Waterson to sing. Altisidora has quite a different inspiration, a painting by nine-year-old Laura. Waterson captures the creative energy of childhood delightfully and Freya’s jazzy clarinet work moves things along evocatively.

Five of the songs deal fairly directly with various aspects of romance. How Can I Leave? is a charming amble of need and independence with great contributions from Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. Stumbling On is one of the best suffering-from-a-bad-breakup songs ever written, enigmatically painful and perfectly delivered. It features a great harmony vocal from Marry Waterson, Lal’s daughter. Wilsons Arms blends the naturalism of much of Lal’s work with glimpses of a romantic interlude in one of the most effectively simple presentations on the disc. So Strange Is Man is an aching love song from a mature woman, a perfect glimpse into how lives grow together even with the spaces between us. Midnight Feast is one of the best songs Lal ever wrote, a lusty metaphor that celebrates physical love flawlessly.

The disc ends even stronger than it began, with Some Old Salty. An a capella number with a sea chantey flavor, it draws together all the strands of Lal’s musical approach. Part dance hall nostalgia, part quirky traditional harmonies, part love song, part ode to nature, it’s a joyous romp that wraps up the whole package with a celebration.

FURTHER LISTENING: Lal died before she and Oliver could complete their next collaboration, but they had recorded enough material that he was able to release A Bed of Roses, another strong set that only comes in second because of Once In A Blue Moon‘s haunting power. Since then, he’s built on the musical structure of their work. Mysterious Day, officially a solo album, is a solid set of songs (including more lyrics written by Lal) with a stunning array of guest stars. It included a duet with sister Marry, which led to their forming a musical partnership. Her lyrics and vocals are eerily reminiscent of her mother’s while maintaining a clear identity of their own. The Days That Shaped Me is a bit inconsistent as the siblings work out their family ghosts and find their groove — the high points are very satisfying indeed, however. Hidden is a much stronger, more cohesive offering, promising a wonderful continuation of this family tradition.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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