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Hands On Music HMCD37

It is a few years now since I last reviewed Miranda Sykes. And that review was a highly favourable one of her debut solo album.

Since then (early 2004), a lot has happened to her, and her profile has become far more well known nationally, especially through her work with Show Of Hands. And in 2009, she met the bluegrass musician Rex Preston, and they decided that their unusual combination of her double bass and his mandolin, were the perfect fit. And their debut album would seem to have done nothing to gainsay that, judging by its generally positive effect on some hardened folk critics.

So here we come to the harder task: coming up with a second album that can build on the success of the first. Can anyone ever say why it’s harder? But it seems to be. The history books are littered with the names of artistes who could not maintain the momentum in that second album. And it is not just CDs. Second novels, second plays, second movies: all of them occasionally seem too high a step to climb for people who have shone, first time out.

Here we have an album where the bluegrass influence seems minimal (though I loved the one bluegrass instrumental: a tribute to its writer who had died just before Rex came across the tune). No, here, “trad and contemporary folk” is the genre that reigns supreme…albeit, with some highly imaginative arrangements designed to show two instrumentalists at the top of their game.

I liked the album a lot. The quality of the sound is top drawer: it is a feast for the ears. And despite the occasionally avant-garde arrangements, it is surprisingly easy on the ear too.

I have some reservations though. I wondered a little if the inclusion of a couple of songs was not the result of the challenge they would bring to pull them off instrumentally, rather than the intrinsic quality of the songs themselves. And when a song was in on its obvious merits – Paul Metsers’ grand song How Soon How Long for example – I was a trifle disappointed that Rex’s generally excellent vocals were, in this case, disturbingly faithful (phrase-for-phrase) to Paul’s original, which I have nearly worn out down the years. One should leave cover versions for tribute bands: one looks for any decent vocalist to grab a song himself and put his own stamp and interpretation on it.

And Rex, is a lot more than “decent” in the vocals department! But that minor quibble apart, I salute Rex for remembering what a fine writer Paul Metsers is: if only more young artistes would go to his back catalogue.

Generally then, as I say, a pleasing album. Two songs from Boo Hewerdine (one written especially for Miranda) are delivered with aplomb, as is the traditional Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight, Bill Jones’s Turn To Me, and the best track of the lot which closes the album, John Kirkpatrick’s Sing A Full Song.

A final word to note the contribution from Grant Gordy on flatpick guitar: it is unselfish guitar work that always complements the instrumental work of the two star turns.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 97 of The Living Tradition magazine.