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Alex Monaghan of The Living Tradition

reviews Wreck off Scilly by Andy Clarke and Steve Tyler

I don't usually go in for singers, certainly not English singers, but I'll make an exception for this pair, partly because Steve Tyler is a dab hand on the hurdy-gurdy, but also because Andy Clarke sings a range of fascinating traditional songs seldom heard, and he sings them very well. There are also enough instrumentals to break up the singing, always a key factor for me. In a Devon dozen tracks, Clarke and Tyler give us eight songs and five instrumentals. All the songs are sung by Andy and richly accompanied by Steve, or by Ruth Clarke on fiddle, or both. Much of Andy's material is from the collecting of Sabine Baring-Gould, a nineteenth-century clergyman born near Okehampton, and it reflects the usual themes of English folk songs: death, disaster, kissing corpses, and campanology. Childe the Hunter, Cold Blows the Winter Wind, Bell Ringing and the title track are all based on Baring-Gould's manuscripts. Coal Owner and the Pitman's Wife is a sharp social comment from the Durham miners of the mid nineteenth century, and Poor Labourers comes from a broadsheet of the same period. Over the Hills is a Torquay song, and Rosemary Fair is adapted from an Irish version of that recipe for stuffing which was popularised by Simon & Garfunkel.

There are plenty of special moments in these songs, both from the accompaniment and from lines such as "Often times below, thoughts of her run through my mind" or "Come listen to my tragedy, my story sad and lame". Clarke delivers each ballad with clarity and soul, and Tyler's performance is equally polished. From Playford to Danish polskas, the instrumental tracks have all the depth and dark earthiness of the best hurdy-gurdy music. Jon Swayne's Beanfield gets a gentle touch, with easy rhythms in the right hand. Half Hannikin is stately and measured, while Steve's own Wendigo dances like a dervish. Mariam Matrem has an appropriately raw medieval feel, hepled by lute-like harmonies from Andy. Two compositions by nyckelharpa player Lasse Væver Jacobsen complete the picture, tricky beasts deftly picked out by Tyler's left hand and accompanied by Clarke's bouzouki. I really enjoyed this collection of songs and tunes, proper music with just the right amount of polish, from a highly skilled duo.