Neither Mick Ryan nor Pete Harris are newcomers to the English folk scene. Ryan has a long career behind him. His first LP was released in 1978, a duo effort with Jon Burge. He has also been a member of The Crows, who failed to make it big, and has written a couple of folk musicals. Harris has played with a number of groups and is also a solo performer. They formed their duo in 1993 and have previously released at least three albums together.
On Hard Season, their roles are clear. Mick Ryan provides the lead vocals and Pete Harris the instrumental backings on various string instruments, often double tracked, and some vocal harmonies. Harris has one lead vocal, the ever popular The Foggy Dew. On a few tracks, they get help from Dave Ingledew on melodeon, Joyce Ingledew on fiddle, Paul Marsh on bodhran, and Paul Sartin on oboe.
Mick Ryan has a superb voice for singing folk music. Often powerful, sometimes more relaxed, his delivery of the lyrics is crystal clear and he is successful in his ornamentation of the songs. He is a folk singer in the true sense of the word, with a mission to perform the songs, not to use the songs as vehicles to show off his own ability. On the album, he also proves himself a good writer of songs in the traditional vein.
The best compliment you can hand to Pete Harris and his playing is that, on the double?tracked pieces, it sounds like a band playing, not one musician playing several different instruments. He has an ability to add what is needed to supplement Ryans voice. In particular, his guitar playing is superb; after listening to the CD I would put him down as a guitar player also playing other instruments. On songs like The Lass of Islington and Just As the Tide Was Flowing, his guitar playing is smooth and easy flowing, though when you listen carefully you will find it very complex. His harmony vocals are also outstanding on a couple of songs.
It is a very English record. The songs are a mixture of traditionals and Ryans own. Some of the traditional ones are fairly well known, other more obscure. The Ryan songs are mostly taken from his folk musicals, The Voyage and A Days Work.
There are a number of stand?out tracks for me. I Wont Take That Lying Down, a Ryan?penned song from The Voyage, is a powerful statement with a catchy chorus and half rocky backing. It is one of those songs that could easily become a standard among floor singers and folk performers. Long Hard Season, another Ryan song, is also powerful and catchy, performed here a cappella in two harmonies.
Leaves of Life is a traditional carol taken from the Watersons. Ryan and Harris perform it a capella, and, throughout the song, they add on layers of harmonies. The Recruited Soldier is another traditional song. Mick Ryan performs it solo, with no instrumental backing. The same goes for The Plains of Waterloo, which is given a superb treatment. Ryans performance has made me rediscover this beautiful ballad.
The Leaving Time, yet another Ryan original from The Voyage, is a sad song about the reasons for people emigrating. Come and Be a Soldier, from Ryans A Days Work, is the rockiest track on the album, with Harris providing electric guitars, mandolin and fretless bass. You only wait for the drums to come in.
All in all, this is a fine example of English folk music at its best.