Laura Cannell & Polly Wright: Sing As the Crow Flies review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month

(Brawl Records)
The duo’s album is based on a 19th-century book of Norfolk customs and ballads, decorated with powerful improvised vocals

On the fringes of tradition sits Laura Cannell, the Norfolk musician best known for her baroque violin playing and the eerie drones of her recorders. Her music usually revisits old spaces, ancient churches and marshlands, but her new album goes one step further: exploring the lost voices of women in folktales from her part of the world. Working with fellow East Anglia singer and performer Polly Wright, on this album for the first time, quite appropriately, Cannell sings.

Cannell and Wright take as their source material a terrifying sounding 19th-century book: The Norfolk Garland: A Collection of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Proverbs, Curious Customs, Ballads and Songs of the People of Norfolk. Words from it are laced loosely around the women’s vocal improvisations. Initially, they sound tentatively uttered. One for the Rook One for the Crow takes an old seed-growing proverb – one will wither and one will grow – and whispers its words like soft winds in and out of the air. As the women call and respond though, their communion develops in intensity, their voices whipping and warping in and out of tune. This impetus continues throughout these nine beautiful, penetrating tracks, with names such as Marsh Village Psalms, All I Have I Give to Thee and Revoicing Hraefns People. (Hraefns being the Old English word for “ravens”, and the old name of Cannell’s home village, Raveningham.)

This is folk because it reconsiders our relationships to tradition in the 21st century, and how people fit into it and long to fold themselves into it. It is an album for deep listening, and solitude ideally, wrenching its listener far away from modern life to something in touch with the older, stranger marrow of ourselves.

Also out this month

The second volume of Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes’ brilliant 365 project, where Lau’s fiddler and the Mercury-nominated jazz pianist create instrumentals inspired by Scottish writer James Robertson’s stories. It’s enlivening, beautiful stuff, and only the highlights of a (gulp) 30-CD set that comes out next year. Fans of traditional song should get Belinda Kempster and Fran Foote’s On Clay Hill immediately, a bracingly good, largely a cappella album of ballads by the mother and daughter duo. Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook sees the folk titan strip down her country’s pop tunes (by the likes of Chvrches, Biffy Clyro, and Big Country) to gentler arrangements, risking John Lewis Christmas ad pastiche at every turn. Her charm helps her avoid it.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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