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Dia Woosnam of Dia Woosnam

reviews Sharp Practice by Mary Humphreys & Anahata

This duo was a new act on my radar: I had never caught them at a festival.   My loss. This album is seriously impressive and gives off a certain
aura. Difficult to pin down exactly what that scent is: it’s got that
pleasant whiff of the library of Cecil Sharp House. There is a kind of
“integrity of both purpose and execution” here: the kind that was quite common in the Bill Leader “Trailer” days, but is a bit rarer a commodity now.
First, let’s get Anahata’s name out of the way. When I first saw the name, I instantly assumed he might be some performer from the Indian sub-continent, and that the album’s content be some sort of bizarre fusion of (say) ragas and ragtime. But HE ain’t, and IT ain’t.
Rather, the title of the CD gives the clue: ‘Sharp Practice’. The “sharp”
is never Mary’s fine pitch-perfect singing style: and “practice” is
something they have manifestly done their fair share of. But the “Sharp”
of course refers to Cecil, as there are four songs here from his collections.   It is an album of music from the English Tradition alright.

But what makes the pun a very clever one, is an additional explanatory title
of “Rarities and Renovations from the English Tradition”. That is to
say that some purists may consider that this duo have committed “sharp practice” by NOT going for the tried, tested and trusted version of a song,
but for a more obscure variant.   For instance, the opening track has their
unusual version of that well known ballad ‘The Mermaid’, but has the
customary ending reversed.  I’m certain that the song does not suffer: indeed, a curious sort of blood transfusion occurs, and it has new life for me.
But it is the other half of the “additional title” that I really focus on: the “Rarities”. “When Fishes Fly (No My Love, Not I)” is a song
completely new to me, with a tune collected by Sharp in 1904, and the text an amalgam of words collected by as recently as 1958. How come it has escaped me? God knows, for the truth is that it bowled me over. If I hear a better song in the next five years I will be one very happy man. And what added to the enjoyment were the erudite notes in the liner booklet. How refreshing not to have the all-too-easy cop-out of – often superfluous - printed lyrics: well they are “superfluous” when a
singer has good diction like Ms. Humphreys. Instead, we have really
well-written and thoughtful notes, designed to both heighten our
appreciation of a song and also give us a deeper insight into it. That is
how liner notes SHOULD work, but rarely do. But these notes are top drawer: and a comment regarding this track is
typically illuminating.   I vaguely knew that the word “rue” as a noun
referred to some sort of shrub or herb, but had no idea that it was used as
an abortifacient. Indeed, let me not try to con you: I had no idea of
the existence of the word “abortifacient” until I read these notes, despite falling head-over-heels in love with the English language when just a kid!) And this kind of information adds SO MUCH to an already fine song. Whoever wrote the notes (Mary? Anahata? Doug Bailey of WildGoose Studios?) has got a real light on in their upstairs library.     A pleasure to read these notes.

As I say the album is of a high quality.  Between ballads, we often segue into instrumentals that are a mixture of the traditional and the (sometimes relatively) contemporary.   Mainly concertina and melodeon driven.  But this couple are really both multi-instrumentalists, and I think it was
Mary’s banjo, and Anahata’s cello that spoke to me the most. Her banjo on
the aforementioned masterpiece of a track may be beautifully persuasive,
but, two minutes into the song Anahata’s cello comes in at the start of the second verse. With remarkable results. There is a real FRISSON resulting.   Sorry, but it’s “resort to cliché” time for me here, folks. Two words spring to mind: “hairs”and “neck”.  And that CELLO! I promise you: Pablo Casals would not have played a more
stirring and-yet-subtle accompaniment.
And his cello does it again on the second best cut, a truly stirring version of ‘Sheath and Knife’: again, incidentally, with a twist…a clever conflation from Mary.
A very respectable album indeed.      

I have left till last the bizarre resemblance of the sound of Mary’s voice to that of a major name on the UK folk scene.   I am sure that others will have driven her half nuts with this association down the years, so I won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say that I have gone twice to see that unnamed lady twice within the last 18 months only to find she has cried off at almost literally the last minute.   And apparently (whilst not quite a
George “No Show” Jones) this is by no means exceptional.  And I am sure it
is genuine illness, incidentally.

So Mary a suggestion: shadow that superstar, and when she cries off, you get up on stage and become as well known as her.    And to be honest, I think – on the strength of this CD anyway – that I would prefer to hear your good self… always providing that Anahata’s sublime cello is always not far behind!