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David Kidman of Netrythms

reviews Blood & Honey by The Devil's Interval

The Devils Interval, rather intriguingly named after a particular sounding-together of three notes which a decent music encyclopaedia might describe as a tritone of notoriously sinister dissonance, is in fact the collective name for three fine young harmony singers (Jim Causley, Lauren McCormick and Emily Portman) who first met in 2002 at Newcastle University while studying for the Traditional Music degree.

They'd first made an impression on me around 18 months ago when they appeared at the launch of the Songlinks 2 project, since which time they've gone from strength to strength with appearances at many folk festivals and as part of the Waterson: Carthy Yuletide Show Frost And Fire both last year and this. Theyve been hailed as English folks new supergroup, and whilst in my humble opinion that errs on the side of extravagant hype they certainly have a lot to offer, especially in terms of confidence, accomplishment and integrity. They have a deep  and lively  interest in traditional song, one that transcends mere academicism and eschews the driness of that approach, preferring to view the tradition as a living, breathing phenomenon; in that regard they clearly take their inspiration from close listening to the source singers on the Voice Of The People sets and in particular, they aver, from the earthy, free-spirited singing style of the travelling people.

That term free spirit is important, for it describes both the creativity with which the Devils Interval come to express the songs and communicate their excitement in what theyre doing, and their belief that all song is grist to the mill, whether it be traditional balladry or music-hall, Tom Waits or Bette Midler covers. (Not that we get any of the latter on this CD, I hasten to add ) The trios debut album presents a good cross-section, though Im not entirely convinced that the running-order of the tracks does either the singers or their material justice. Also, I dont always quite connect with their treatments of their chosen material, at least on first acquaintance; it may be that the trios sheer daring takes a bit of getting used to, even for those of us who are normally of an adventuresome disposition. There are some extraordinary seat-of-the-pants moments in those harmonies, to be sure, and the often surprisingly restrained arrangements contain some serious subtleties to get your ears round.

On a first hearing, what you notice at once  indeed, what startles most, perhaps  is the relatively vast contrast between the three individual voices, not just in their actual coloristic or tonal qualities; they work together far better than you might imagine having heard them in a solo context. The timbre of Jims voice is rich, solid and confident, at one moment lulling you into a sense of comfort yet at another quite disturbing, not least in its wondrous elasticity of line; Emilys enthusiastic, commendably precise, sibilant delivery complementing and contrasting with Laurens smoother melodiousness yet both displaying that enviable combination of youthful (almost coy) innocence and full-bodied (thrusting) strength. No exaggeration, but each time I play this disc I get the compulsion to replay at least some of it almost at once because I just know it will reveal more and more the next time: this is a rather special category for a new disc to be in!

Examples: well, I always start Silver Dagger with trepidation, for (like some other tracks) it feels a bit polite and mannered at first and takes a while to click but it soon proves compulsive listening, as does (though immediately this time) the trios haunting version of The Leaves Of Life. The delightful homespun-philosophy commentary of Studying Economy sounds fun to sing (and empathise with!), and fresh each time you hear it despite the tightness of the arrangement. The melancholy sequence just past midway through the disc, comprising two carols and Down Among The Dead Men, is superbly managed (and I wonder how many other listeners will, like me, hear uncanny resonances of Shirley Collins in Laurens singing of her own May Carol?); Bonfire Carol in particular (which Devils Interval are indeed lucky to have squeezed out of Chris Coe!) is a real discovery. Although the trio are committed to acappella singing, theres a smidgen of instrumental accompaniment on a small handful of the tracks. Long Lankin is given an episodic, quasi-retro treatment that smacks of something from the halcyon days of electro-folk (and arguably loses a little in holding-power and contemporary credibility by not going the whole hog down that road). Two Crows cavort along with a slightly lugubrious morris-y gait, a delicious rendition thats mildly spoilt only by some unnecessary crow-impersonations (caws for concern there, naughty Mr Cawsley  sic!). And while still waxing ornithological, the DIs choice of the Queen Caroline Hughes version of The Cuckoo is both bold and highly inspired. The disc closes with a jolly syncopated knees-up rendition of the old string-puller Blow Me Jack where Id swear you can feel the synchronised dance routine of the participants!