Monday, 4 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly - Changeable Heart : Pure Records (Out March 15th)

Contemporary folk music is awash with recording duo acts, frequently spanning the gender configurations. Some of these are longstanding, while others pop up in a collaborative project. This crowded arena will have to make room for at least one more in 2019 as familiar names: Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly emerge as next off the rank to steer into this territory. These two talented performers have trodden very different paths in recent times, but the fate that has seen them team up could quite conceivably be one of the instinctive highlights of the calendar year. Their debut release CHANGEABLE HEART hits the market in mid-March ahead of live dates. Of course, the term debut suggests there may be more to come, and on the back of the quality of this album that would be welcome.

However, let us not race too ahead of ourselves, especially as Ruth Notman has been away from the recording scene for an extended period following a decision to pursue a medical career instead of singing professionally. Whatever her motives, the input given this album signals a timely return and plenty will welcome this renaissance. There is a vague recollection of seeing her play at the Big Sessions in Leicester over a decade ago, in the days where she emerged as a prodigious talent. A notion backed up by listening to her golden vocals shine brightly on this record.

In contrast, Sam Kelly has been a permanent feature of the folk scene for a number of years, cropping up in numerous formats, projects and recording outlets. Often his work has veered into the world of traditional song, to the extent that the 2017 album he recorded with his band The Lost Boys entirely lent in this direction. Therefore, it is of little surprise that material from these sources features prominently on the new record, although away from the bigger picture you are able to chunk the content into smaller compact packages.

It would be wrong to start any mini in-depth analysis of this album away from the two original pieces. The title track, ‘Changeable Heart’, co-written by Ruth and Sam, stands out as the record’s beacon, and sparkles as a good a standard duet as you are likely to hear in recent times. Adopting specific roles and perspectives, both voices merge from two into one to make this a worthy standout. The other original is one credited solely to Ruth, and ‘As You Find Your Way Home’ sees her vocals take full control.

At the back end of a record that succinctly does its job across thirty-seven minutes, there are two cover songs getting a modern makeover to reinforce the magnitude of their message. ‘School Days Over’ by folk legend Ewan MacColl is an evocative coming of age piece, with Ruth and Sam doing it justice on this record. Likewise, a version of Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’ freshens up the impact of a song that retains relevance even if locations change.

The remainder of this album rests on the work of that prolific writing credit, ‘traditional’. The two that strike a chord most here are the Ruth-led ‘Caw the Yowes’ and Sam vocally excelling on ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’. Closely following these include album opener ‘Bold Fisherman’ and mid-placed ‘My Lagan Love’, both finding their feet within the mood and tone of the record. While there will no doubt be many folklorists dissecting the versions curated, put in context of the Notman-Kelly arrangements few faults are found here, even if themes and styles of ‘The Cunning Cobbler’ and ‘Young Brian of the Sussex Wold’ do not really court much appeal in my listening sphere.

At the helm of this project is respected musician Damian O’Kane, widely known for his work with wife Kate Rusby. Inviting Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly into the realm of their operation has proved an astute decision, further sealed by the stature of CHANGEABLE HEART. Indisputably, an album that furthers careers regardless of their existing starting points, and one set to create a stir in the folk community as a minimum.