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Private Label MQCD02

Last year, Melrose Quartet (the glorious conjoining of two already winning partner-teams: Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith) released a taster-EP very much in a ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ vein, which was instantly acclaimed in all quarters. Now if that EP was good and predicted a considerable shelf-life for that special grouping of talents, then Fifty Verses elevates their proven vibrant consummate ensemble identity onto a new level, exhibiting an even more accomplished feel and an even more striking sense of togetherness among the participants. The sheer power and vigour of their fortuitous teaming is given fullest rein on a splendidly balanced menu of songs and tunes that unashamedly mixes old and new with self-penned material into a seamless parade of the demonstrable continuity of folk tradition.

One of Melrose Quartet’s intrinsic selling points is its empathic sense of internal balance and relative dynamics, ensuring that no individual line is in danger of becoming swamped within the carefully coordinated rich and satisfying textural blend; another is that each group member is so very strong both in the vocal and instrumental departments. On this new (full-length) album, arrangements are expertly configured to perfectly showcase (albeit also entirely naturally) each group member’s distinctive qualities, strengths and versatility, defined lead/support roles notwithstanding. This is especially noticeable in the case of the songs, which form the lion’s share of the disc; seven of these are performed in pure a cappella mode, sporting fresh-sounding and uniquely skilful arrangements that are both spellbinding and stimulating for the listener without coming across as clever-clever or merely tricksy. Especially impressive is Wedding Bells, a seasonal love song come celebration penned by Jess herself, while the disc’s a cappella bookends also provide memorable album standouts. Santa Georgia, written by Nancy, masterfully binds together rural and industrial imagery to celebrate the bittersweetness of putting down roots in a modern British city (Sheffield), whereas chorus participation might also be considered de-rigeur in the case of the contrasting disc finale, where Jess leads an air-stopping four-part rendition of the Appalachian spiritual hymn Bright Morning Star. (A Bellamy connection is further explored with James’s powerful reworking of The Death Of Nelson, which Peter had included within his own Maritime Suite.)

The Quartet’s instrumental work throughout the album is characterised by its tremendous dance-inspired rhythmic vitality, a life-affirming energy that so closely matches the fullness and resonance of its tonal blend. This is just as strongly in evidence on the evocative title song (another of Nancy’s own finely-etched compositions) as on the bouncy rub-a-dub of The Wanton Wife Of Castlegate with its irresistible twin-fiddle, twin-female-vocal attack (and more than a hint of Steeleye’s boisterous Female Drummer!). The disc’s penultimate track then gives us the best of all worlds with its imaginative deployment of a vocal canon (When You Were Born) as prelude to a stirring pair of marches.

Space simply does not permit me to extol the considerable virtues of each and every track, but suffice to say that Fifty Verses is an absolutely magnificent achievement, and will definitely be one of my albums-of-the-year when poll-time comes round again.

David Kidman

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