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David Kidman of fRoots

reviews Grand Conversation by Mick Ryan & Paul Downes

Mick's distinctive rich baritone and unerring command of phrasing are in fine fettle here, with his latest collaborator, ace instrumentalist Paul Downes, proving worth his weight in gold. The opening track, a brave new arrangement of the celebrated Napoleonic title song, is furnished with a syncopated, driven momentum that imparts Mick's reading with a sense of urgency that's different from (though no less valid than) the epic treatment given it by most revival singers. A comparable sense of energy is present on Young Men All and on Mick's own compositions, Thomas Brassey (from his latest folk musical The Navvy's Wife) and Sleep Of Death (where Paul's percussive riff provides a simple but effective foil for the more florid contours of Mick's melody).

Around two-thirds of the songs are Mick's own, in fact, and although they're drawn from different time-frames within his career they embody a healthy consistency. I'd single out The Light, whose melody (borrowed from Joni Mitchell's Song To A Seagull) weaves around and climbs the vocal register, portraying the contrast between the intimidating darkness of Cornwall's Geevor tin mine and the blinding light into which you emerge on the high cliffs above. Another triumph for Mick is The Lazy Man, the nearest we get to a patter-song (each Mick Ryan album normally contains one example), while his bel canto delivery of Green Island transcends the spirit of affectionate pastiche in which, Mick says, it was originally written. The Lark Above The Downs (resurrected from A Day's Work) receives a magisterial performance from Mick against Paul's powerfully understated guitar figures. Coming after which, however, Mick's highly attractive rendition of The Banks Of The Bann feels like a bit of a makeweight by comparison. Also, while I greatly admire Mick's technique, with its strong sense of purpose and firm legato, his fairly constant use of tenuto (extension of line) can sometimes become just a little wearing. Elsewhere, I mustn't underestimate Paul's own unassumingly competent vocal harmonies, nor his exemplary instrumental work (a sterling combination of sensitivity and virtuosity). He easily moves from the guitar on to banjo to accompany the gorgeous Bell Ringing (from his home county Devon) and the deliciously sinister Land Of Cockayne (another ingeniously wordy opus from Mick's pen), and on to octave mandola to grace the stirring Dorset labourers' anthem Put Them Down.

In all, this teaming of two well-regarded yet well-underrated folk talents signals a quite special record which is worth taking time to get to know.