Album of the Week, November 1: Red Rice by Eliza Carthy

RedRiceEliza Carthy was born of folk royalty and emerged as a talent all her own. With parents like Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, it’s no surprise that she found herself bitten by the music bug. She began harmonizing young and by 13 was singing with her mother, aunt, and cousin as the Waterdaughters. She took up the fiddle and developed a distinctly English approach in the vein of her father’s long-time musical partner Dave Swarbrick. A natural collaborator like all the family, she recorded two albums with fiddler and singer Nancy Kerr before she was 20. Her solo debut was a well-regarded collection of traditional songs featuring her strong fiddle work and earnest vocals. After a one-off album with the Kings of Calicutt, she was ready to make her first major statement. Embracing her folk roots, strong sense of musical history, and desire to explore new forms, she entered the studio with a sympathetic band (including cousin Oliver Knight) and crafted a masterpiece.

Title Red Rice
Act Eliza Carthy
Label Topic Release Date  May 19, 1998
Producer Niall Macauley and Eliza Carthy (with “the rest of the world”)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks

Disc One: Red

  1. Accordion Song
  2. 10,000 Miles
  3. Billy Boy / The Widow’s Wedding
  4. Time In the Son
  5. Stumbling On
  6. Stingo / The Stacking Reel
  7. Greenwood Laddie /
    Mrs. Capron’s Reel / Tune
  8. Walk Away
  9. Adieu, Adieu
  10. Russia (Call Waiting)
  11. Red Rice

Disc Two: Rice

  1. Blow the Winds / The Game of Draughts
  2. The Snow It Melts the Soonest
  3. Picking Up Sticks / The Old Mole /
    Felton Lonnin / Kingston Girls
  4. Miller and the Lass
  5. Herring Song
  6. Mons Meg
  7. Tuesday Morning
  8. Haddock and Chips
  9. The Americans Have Stolen My True Love Away
  10. Zycanthos Jig / Tommy’s Foot / Quebecois
  11. The Sweeetness of Mary /
    Holywell Hornpipe /Swedish
  12. Benjamin Bowmaneer
  13. Commodore Moore / The Black Dance / A Andy O

Carthy created a cohesive whole with two distinct approaches. Red is more experimental, featuring a few traditional songs in unexpected arrangements and a clever collection of covers. Rice is more traditional and organic, balanced with Carthy’s unique perspective and talent. Together, Red Rice is a bold, compelling album that stands as a high point in the rich Waterson:Carthy canon.

LizaCRedAccordion Song is one of the best album openers in modern folk. A brilliant folk-pop original, it lives up to its cheeky subtitle: Accidental Saturday Night Kitchen Mix. Disarmingly casual but perfectly constructed, its Eliza Carthy at her confident best. The next two tracks graft electronic sounds onto her folk roots, with 10,000 Miles offering a sort of trad-hop sound and Billy Boy blending a breakneck delivery with a an eerie echo. She follows with a smart couple: Time In the Son is a dark, mysterious original that summons the musical spirit of her aunt, Lal Waterson; Stumbling On covers that selfsame genius, offering a dizzying jazz-inflected version of one of Lal’s best songs. The next pair features more traditional folk reinvention, with Stingo/The Stacking Reel merging great fiddle work with very modern drumming and the next medley using a nice bass-and-piano figure to move traditional music into a late-night 90’s roadside pub. Walk Away is another great cover, borrowed from Ben Harper’s debut, an album enjoyed by both Carthy and her mother. The family connection continues with Adieu, Adieu, a traditional song performed by the Watersons and brilliantly interpreted in a rare Red acoustic moment. The last pair are the most experimental, pushing musical boundaries and offering two different folktronica instrumentals. Russia features a slow build and a nice accordion line, while the title track features aggressive staccato sounds and an urgent fiddle.

Eliza-Carthy-RiceWhile Red ended very much at the turn of the 21st Century, Rice opens in the deep trad past. Blow the Winds is a stark, acoustic reading of a very old song paired with a Carthy original, and The Snow is a dark interpretation of a stark ballad of loss. Carthy mixes things up by offering a sprightly set of dance tunes, followed by a lovely vocal-and-fiddle reading of The Miller and the Lass. The highlight of the second disc is the enchanting Herring Song, a great reading of an old counting song. Over the next six tracks, Carthy offers up a dazzling mixture of traditional sounds, moving from the clean simplicity of Mons Meg to the charming dance instrumental trio launched by Zycanthos Jig (written by Roger Wilson) to the stately medley led off by The Sweetness of Mary. In the middle of this great pack is the wistful The Americans Have Stolen… treated with an appropriately nautical sound. Benjamin Bowmaneer harkens back to the first disc, with Carthy solo on vocals and piano, offering a syncopated  delivery that confounds expectations and makes the most of the traditional tale. The closing medley is a simple, lovely set with joyful fiddling and percussion provided by clog dancing. It’s a perfect way to wrap up this musical journey.

Not long after it was released, Red Rice was split into two discs sold separately. That may have been commercially smart, but it dilutes the genius of the whole package. Eliza Carthy made a complicated, cohesive statement that needs all the space it uses. Ambitious, smart, fun, experimental, respectful, and always well played, Red Rice is a peerless moment in the fixed but flexible world of traditional folk.

FURTHER LISTENING: Eliza Carthy has an extensive catalog. She’s recorded several albums in the ever-changing family group Waterson:Carthy and the one-off family and friends unit Blue Murder as well as contributing fiddle and vocals to a wide array of projects by friends and relations. Under her own name she has 15 albums mixing traditional and folk-pop sounds with jazz and dance elements. Fully half of these are collaborations, and she makes the most of her talented friends. The best of her own work are:

  • Angels and Cigarettes, a somewhat misguided attempt by Warner Bros. to cast her as a pop star that succeeds because of her raw talent and stirring original songs;
  • Anglicana, her most traditional set, with strong playing and singing from start to finish;
  • Gift, a collaboration with her mother that finds them both in fine form and blending their skills in that spooky way only a very talented family can; and
  • Neptune, the album that Angels should have been, a mature, smart, fun set of original songs.

Prolific and only 40, Carthy has a long career ahead of her. The unfortunately named Definitive Collection from 2004 is a nice sampler and a good starting point for anyone interested in one of the brightest talents in British folk.

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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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