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Cuig Music CUICD012

As a supremely skilled exponent of mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, cittern and – especially – the tenor banjo, Martin’s been around the scene for ages it seems, first as a key member of The Champion String Band (during which era he appeared on Kathryn Tickell’s debut release!) and latterly with the ensembles Cuig and Steamradio. His first nominally “solo” album, allegedly ten years in the making, is a cathartic exercise, a spicily eclectic parade of tune-sets (mostly made up of original compositions of Martin’s) in distinctive stylings often deriving from other musics, wherein the majority of the instruments are played by Martin himself (ingeniously multitracked) with intelligent accompaniment by Sean Taylor on various fretted and fretless basses, keyboards and percussion, and guest contributions from no less than five fiddlers (Dan Hands, Amanda Lewis, Tom Leary, Chuck Fleming and Paul Archer) and pianist Randy Andropolis.

Sparky, lively playing characterises each and every selection, with some surprising and invigorating twists and turns of idiom and phrasing; and enjoyment for both players and listeners proves the key element, however virtuoso the musicianship may be. To give a flavour of the delights on offer here, just sample the opening pair of tracks: the first being a medley that starts in Latin mode then beats up into a rocky finish, whereas on The Burnhope Bhangra reel-set Martin’s twangy Fender Stratocaster meets head-on with bouncy dub beats and Dan Hands’ brilliant fiddle melody-line. The quasi-improvisational Musette Waltz pairs easily with the Hot Club-cum-Harry Lime atmospheric gypsy café lilt of La Maison Jaune, and the Slow Steel set is another stunning exposition of musicianly banjo technique at various tempi. There’s an attractively bluegrassy demeanour to Martin’s treatment of O’Hanlon’s, first as a reel and then a delicate waltz, while even on the more orthodox-framed (yet still blistering) banjo excursion of the Dr Cate Matthews medley there’s plenty of sensitivity to savour in the invention. The Telecaster alternates melodies with the banjo on The Unresolved set, then the disc’s closing gambit is to invent a “new genre for 21st century folk”, that of Ethno Techno, which isn’t nearly as dreadful as it sounds! And just to show that Martin’s a good sport too, he delegates the lead-work entirely to fiddlers Dan and Chuck on the gorgeous Shetland-cum-Nashville-cum-Transatlantic-Session-inspired Maria’s Waltz.

Yes, with Autumn, Martin’s produced a really tasty example of boundary-straddling but thoroughly listenable and natural integration of styles and modes: one that, by the way, can also be heartily recommended to anyone who believes that all-instrumental discs are devoid of interest.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 89 of The Living Tradition magazine.