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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Song of the Day, October 21: Logan’s Lament by Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen

CarthyEriksenBottleLoganEliza Carthy has never been one to rest on her reputation. The daughter of two British folk legends, she carved out her own career as a distinctive fiddler, talented singer and songwriter, and music historian. She has recorded an impressive series of albums solo, with family, and with a wide variety of other performers. In 2013 she went on tour with another folk force, American musician Tim Eriksen. The leader of Cordelia’s Dad, Eriksen is known for his ability to reinvent traditional songs; he also holds a PhD in ethnomusicology and regularly teaches university courses in roots music.

The pair’s live shows showed off the lovely overlap in their approach, breathing new life into traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic. Highlights from the tour were released on Carthy’s Hem-Hem label earlier this year as the album Bottle. It’s hard to pick a standout from this great collection, but Logan’s Lament may win the prize. Originally published as a newspaper account in 1774, it describes the Yellow Creek Massacre in which Chief Logan of the Cayuga/Mingo tribe lost most of his family. This led to a back-country conflict that helped reshape white settlers’ views of the natives, resulting in the horrific genocide and marginalization of North America’s original citizens.

It’s a powerful song, delivered with passion and bite. Enjoy this wonderful performance today.

Song of the Day, July 3: Happiness by Eliza and Martin Carthy

CarthyElephantHappinessToday’s song is a family affair. Martin Carthy has been performing and recording for over 50 years; his daughter Eliza  for two dozen. They’ve worked on a number of projects together, but never created an album as a duo. After Eliza’s wonderful 2010 duo album with her mother Norma Waterson, Gift, she and her father began to plan their own duo. After selecting 11 songs — mostly traditional — they worked up a method of preparing the tracks to keep them fresh. The Moral of the Elephant features vocals from both Carthys, Martin’s guitar, and Eliza’s fiddle, a spare sound that lets the songs speak for themselves.

A standout is Happiness, written by Molly Drake. Best known as the mother of Nick Drake, she was an unpublished poet and songwriter whose style had a significant impact on her son. Since interest in his work has surged in the 21st Century, some attention has come to her work as well. Nineteen songs that she played at home on piano were recorded by her husband, Rodney. They were released as Molly Drake in 2013, 20 years after her death.

Eliza observes that the songs are

full of an old Englishness, of musing and reminiscences, childhood, picnics in the woods, and emotional and humorous intelligence beautifully expressed to a piano I can’t help but see in a drawing room bathed in afternoon light. It’s all very romantic, and now never far from my stereo. I may be mellowing, she may be helping.

The Carthy duo create a lovely treatment of this sweet song. Enjoy their performance today.

Song of the Day, April 29: Poor Wayfaring Stranger by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson

WCGiftStrangerToday’s song is The Wayfaring Stranger. It’s a gospel-tinged American folk song [Roud 3339] dating to the early 19th Century. The narrator is a troubled soul, doing her best to get by in a world of troubles and looking forward to peace in the end. The song has been recorded many times by a wide array of artists and was recognized by the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western Songs in 2010.

I enjoy a wide variety of interpretations of this song.

  • Burl Ives recorded a version in 1944 and it became one of his signature songs.
  • Legendary folk singer and song historian Almeda “Granny” Riddle also included the song in her collections over the years.
  • Emmylou Harris recorded a version on her 1980 album Roses In the Snow and released it as a successful single [#7 Country].
  • Neko Case included a stirring version on her 2004 album The Tigers Have Spoken.

On the other side of the pond, Martin Carthy sang the song on Sydney Carter’s television program Hallelujah in 1966; that version was included in the album released to celebrate the show’s musical themes. Over 40 years later, Carthy’s wife and daughter turned in my favorite take on the song.

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson released their first album as a recording duo in 2010. The lead-off track was a beautiful take on the song (using its alternate title) that Liza describes this way:

…this one comes from Mam and Aidan [Curran] sitting having a tune one night. Aidan led the arrangement, right down to trying to tell Danny Thompson what to play without being too scared.

Family member Marry Waterson provides haunting harmonies that round out the song. Enjoy this lovely rendition of a classic folk tune today.

Song of the Day, February 3: Panic Attack Blues by the Rails

RailsPABToday’s song is Panic Attack Blues. When Kami Thompson and James Walbourne joined forces, they each had an impressive body of work behind them. She is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson and has worked extensively with both, providing vocals, guitar, and songwriting. He’s a brilliant guitarist and solid singer who has worked with Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Both have one great solo album to their credit. They met, hit it off musically, got married, and formed a band.

The Rails is this great pair, usually backed by drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Danny Williams. Their debut album, Fair Warning, exceeds all expectations, providing an amazing set of songs. Panic Attack Blues is the highlight. It’s a great modern anxiety song with driving beat and whirlwind lyrics. Walbourne sings lead, agonizing over how difficult it can be just to cope. Thompson’s vocals flow effortlessly around his, creating a compelling synergy. The song is propelled by Walbourne’s guitar, ably supported by the rhythm section. For the instrumental break, he provides a delicious mandolin line. The great Eliza Carthy — also the daughter of musical legends — provides a scorching fiddle that ties it all together.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

BONUS — Thompson and Walbourne also recorded an acoustic version of the song. It shows off his virtuosity, their great vocal sympathy, and how stripping down a great song can reveal its powers.

Song of the Day, December 3: Walk Away by Eliza Carthy

LizaWalkToday’s song is Walk Away as presented on Eliza Carthy’s bold reinvention of modern folk, Red Rice. The two discs take differing approaches; this track appears on Red, the more experimental and contemporary set. The songs feature significant use of synthesizers and keyboards and a fairly rock-oriented approach to percussion, lending a distinctive feel to both the traditional numbers and the contemporary folk compositions.

Walk Away was written and recorded by Ben Harper for his debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World, a nice blend of folk, blues, and funk. It’s an album Carthy has mentioned in interviews as a personal favorite — and one that her mother, Norma Waterson, borrowed another song from for her powerful eponymous solo disc. This is a song of romantic complications, with the singer realizing that she’s with the wrong person and aching for the right one. It opens flawlessly with

Oh no, here comes that sun again,
That means another day without you my friend.

and Carthy invests the painful lines with just the right ache. The very modern, folk-pop setting she chose for the song works nicely, providing a clean backdrop for the engaging lyrics. When she hits each chorus, the emotion is palpable.

And it’s so hard to do and so easy to say
But sometimes, sometimes you just have to walk away.

Enjoy this stirring cover of a great song today.

Song of the Day, May 1: Midnight On the Water by Waterson:Carthy

WCMidnightToday’s song is Midnight On the Water. Like the Country standard Tennessee Waltz, this is a song about a song. In this case, however, writer Ron Kavana built a beautiful celebration of music and love around a real song. Midnight On the Water is a traditional tune, adapted by and often attributed to Lewis Thomasson, usually played on the fiddle. Kavana used that tune as the basis of his song, adding original lyrics that celebrate the power of music to free us from ourselves and help us enjoy the company of our loved ones.

When Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson formed Waterson:Carthy with their daughter, Eliza Carthy, they included this wonderful song on their first album. Eliza’s friend and frequent collaborator, Nancy Kerr, adds fiddle power along with Jock Tyldesley, emphasizing the significance of that instrument in Kavana’s narrative. With Norma on lead vocals, it’s one of the best songs recorded by this iteration of the extended family and a delightful performance overall.

I never thought much of that fancy dancing
With my two left feet and my roving eye.
But when the band plays that slow air in three-four time,
I could dance with my darling until morning comes.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, January 17: No One Stands Alone by Blue Murder

Blue Murder - No One Stands AloneToday’s song is No One Stands Alone by Blue Murder. This great assemblage blended the extended Waterson:Carthy family with British folk vocal powerhouses Coope, Boyes, Simpson. The resulting supergroup rarely recorded or performed, but each moment together was magical. This song was the title track from their only album and is a fine testament to their combined power.

Written by Mosie Lister, it’s a spiritual of true hope. The singers blend their voices in unique harmonies, trading off lines and sharing the majestic passion of the song with magical cohesion.

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour, every day
From here to the great unknown
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Enjoy this amazing vocal performance today.

Song of the Day, October 30: War by Eliza Carthy

LizaCWarNeptuneToday’s song is War by Eliza Carthy. After launching a music career very much in her parents’ traditional footsteps, Carthy quickly branched out. She’s always had an ear for modern or unusual interpretations of traditional tunes and a fondness for mixing original compositions in with the roots music. She’s also a great songwriter, mixing smart observations with wonderful pop sensibilities that carry the distinctive stamp of her roots and influences.

For her third album of all original material, Neptune, she assembles a crack band, thanks her storied family for the inspiration, and knocks out a stunning set of songs about modern life. War is one of the standout tracks, a clever use of metaphor to describe romance, from the dating scene at a local club to her own entanglements. It’s a well-used conceit, but Carthy’s enthusiasm and spot-on observations give it a fresh face. The nearly Caribbean undercurrent propels the song along and Carthy’s fiddle work is delightful as always.

The Italian girls of the long, lazy march
They like to live in clover
They pluck their brows to a high, high arch
To keep the boys from crossing over
War paint on this afternoon
War paint on tonight
Tin hats on kids
There’s going to be a fight

Enjoy a stirring live version of this fun song today.

Song of the Day, August 8: Country Life (I Like to Rise) by Oysterband with Eliza Carthy

ECOysterToday’s song is Country Life (I Like to Rise). A traditional song (Roud #1752), it’s a fairly joyous look at agricultural life before the abusive shareholder practices that developed in the late 18th Century. It acknowledges the stark effort of the labor but revels in the bucolic surroundings as an antidote. The song was a staple of the Watersons’ live shows after Martin Carthy joined and appeared on their 1975 album For Pence and Spicy Ale.

Oysterband convened the Big Session in 2003, a folk show featuring a stellar lineup of singers and musicians. Eliza Carthy sang and played fiddle on a number of tracks, including this one so often performed by her parents. Because of another song titled Country Life on the disc — the biting social commentary from the band Show of Hands — the subtitle from the chorus was added on the track list.

I like to rise when the sun she rises
Early in the morning,
I like to hear them small birds singing
Merrily upon the laylum.
And hurrah for the life of a country boy
And to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Enjoy this joyous song today.

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