This is an exquisite package – both music and visuals have beauty and style, while trying to recover precious things being lost.
Label: Folk by the Oak
Time: 14 tracks / 52 minutes
Sumptuous. That was my initial reaction at handling this release, a CD tucked safely inside the cover of a 112-page hardback book, inspired by another book, itself inspired by yet another book.
In 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary controversially dropped some religious and natural words through underuse, such as Chapel, Saint, Psalm, Goldfinch and Bluebell. Horrified that children were losing touch with objects that have been the stuff of childhood for centuries – acorn, conker, dandelion, wren – Robert Macfarlane co-authored “The Lost Words” with illustrator Jackie Morris.
To reverse the process of ignorance, they featured twenty of these lost words in acrostic form (he called them spells, not least because he daren’t consider himself a poet, but also to ‘summon’ them back into everyday use).
The book took off and is now in huge proportions of British primary schools, to familiarise children with these common stars of nature. It caused a reaction in musicians, too, and this work is a direct inspiration, created by folk luminaries, such as Karine Polwart, Kris Drever and Julie Fowlis.
This may be even more refined and beautiful than you would expect. Macfarlane’s poetry has fed a rich musicality into these lyrics, even when not borrowing his phrases. You will need to hear Rachel Newton’s “Willow” to appreciate how it is built on internal rhythms, but its evocative lyricism is plain from the start:
Willow, when the wind blows
Whisper while we listen, so we learn what words your long leaves loosen
Like the best projects, each song has its own character, but there is a commonality of sound and style that weaves them together. Generally it feels relaxed (natural for a writing session based in the Lake District) with vocals high enough in the mix to be clear, backed often by Seckou Keita’s tumbling Kora notes blending into the strings of piano and guitar.
Highlights include Polwart’s opening lament to the felling of trees in Sheffield and the wonderful closing “Lost Words Blessing,” which incorporates phrases from across the project, its lovely ringing melody lingering into the ensuing silence. In between, the quality rarely drops, especially when they end songs with layers of overlapping vocals, such as in “Kingfisher” (which works well in so many ways) and the suitably otherworldly “Ghost Owl;” while songs like “Scatterseed” and “Selkie Boy” have the sort of melodies that would turn heads, if they could walk into a room.
The spoken word “Conker” breaks up the beauty; and I’m not sure that Beth Porter is the best choice for vocals on “Goldfinch,” but the song itself is excellent, from its whistling introduction to its rolling rhythms.
The lavishly illustrated book has four pages for each artist, two for each song, introductions by the authors and publisher, an interview with Morris and five new acrostics, including two that capture the whiteness of the egret and the exuberant flight and chatter of a charm of goldfinches:
God knows this world needs all the good it can get right now
Out in the garden, the woods, goldfinches are gilding the land for free
Leaving little gifts of light: a gleam for the teasel, a glint for the tree
Didn’t you hear their high scattering song, their bright twitter...
There is much to enjoy in this rich package, which fights back against the sterility of streaming as well as the loss of words. As I say: it's sumptuous.