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Private Label TBGCD003 

The Merciful Road is Northumbrian sibling duo James and Sam Gillespie’s third album, and a further demonstration of the art of the folk troubadour. Here, their fabulously intertwined vocal harmonies are cushioned within intricate and sensitive fingerstyle guitar work and a sparing smattering of complementary instrumentation (the brothers’ own gourd banjo, wooden flute, fiddle, bouzouki) and other colourings courtesy of guests Sianne Moodie (clàrsach), Jen Hill (double bass) and Mairead Kerr (piano). The combination, and the effect, is pure magic.

James and Sam’s imaginative and intelligently poetic lyrics are inspired by finding the grace in our own troubled times through a gently voiced but no less earnest questioning of them. A vivid sense of place arises from their intense and special connection with the landscape of the Tweed valley (the album was recorded in their grandma’s cottage on the banks of the Tweed). One song in particular (Descended) focuses on a specific case of keeping wildness wild, whereas the wider issue of humankind’s relationship with wild places is examined on Albion and Pilgrim Song. A playful, almost ISB-like expression of ostensibly enigmatic childhood memories characterises the cheerfully kaleidoscopic portrait of Wingrove Road. The album’s central theme, however, is the existence of a pathway of hope in dark times, which is explored on a more personal level on The Endless Road, the bluesy soul-searching Bird On The Bough and the tale of the brothers’ emigrant ancestors via their family historian, Great Aunt Katherine.

The brothers’ delicate yet gently impassioned delivery of these songs celebrates the intimacy of human connection and finding that often elusive thread of love and belonging. The impact of the brothers’ songs grows more intense and meaningful on closer and repeated acquaintance, and the almost spiritual nature of the album, with its lovingly presented package (gorgeous artwork by Gemma Koomen), comes to roost (one might say) on its lone non-original track, a peerless rendition of the traditional Borders parting song, When Fortune Turns The Wheel.

David Kidman


This review appeared in Issue 144 of The Living Tradition magazine