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THE MAGPIES - Tidings 

THE MAGPIES - Tidings 
Private Label 

The Magpies are an all-female quartet from the UK who specialise in acoustic music from a variety of ethnic folk genres. They comprise Polly Bolton - not the onetime Albion Band/Dando Shaft vocalist but rather a multi-instrumentalist whose abilities extend to mandolin, bouzouki and fiddle - with singer/songwriter/fiddler Holly Brandon, Bella Gaffney on vocals and guitar, and cellist Sarah Smout making up the ranks. Elements of folk, bluegrass, Celtic, Appalachian and semi-classical are here, with no real allegiance to any style, each colliding to create a fresh take on Anglo/American roots crossovers.

Such a line-up promises a rich sound. I am pleased to report that the initial promise has been realised to a fascinatingly adept degree. Kicking off with an energetic telling of the traditional battle of the sex’s tale, Two Magicians, the sound is initially transatlantic and suggests Newgrass and American traditional nuances in its backing. However, the vocals possess a rustic Yorkshire burr, so beloved of Kate Rusby, which lays their interpretation firmly within an Anglophile setting. Another traditional standard, The Galway Shawl, is given a lovely spaciously winsome treatment and is a welcome recasting of a golden oldie. Holly Brandon’s Foss Island reveals an ingenious tunesmith, and Polly Bolton’s closing instrumental - the paradoxically titled Balls To The Wall - revels in its drawn out intensity. Tunes from outside sources such as Liz Carroll’s Catharsis and the traditional Shuffle Set are dealt similarly adept treatments. The Magpies are blessed with two good in-house songwriters in Polly Bolton and Bella Gaffney who both acquit themselves well, with Gaffney’s No More Tears and Run River Run and Bolton’s Golden Girl standing out as epic story songs covering suicide, murder and other associated topics.

Musically, the band is tight and dexterous, but there’s no star or stand out talent – it’s a unified sound that hits the ears initially, and as Tidings progresses this notion is carefully reinforced. To make a comparison, the nearest equivalents would be American outfits like Darlingside, Uncle Earl and Gillian Welch, whose Rock Of Ages appears here, while like The Poozies they retain a strong Anglo–Celtic flavour at the same time. What emerges principally from Tidings is that The Magpies are a unified force with a sense of mission and destiny. On this showing, that combination makes for a glorious white-knuckle ride that delivers fresh nuances and joy on each listen.

John O’Regan


This review appeared in Issue 135 of The Living Tradition magazine