Clive Pownceby of The Living Tradition
reviews Nine Witch Knots by RubusHer partnerships with Lauren McCormick and The Devils Interval somewhat on the back burner right now, Somerset?born Emily Portman has been ratcheting up expectations with this new project, officially launched at Sidmouth Festival. Added to the clarity of her lead voice and concertina, the band features Christi Andropolis on fiddle and vocals, David Newey on guitar with Will Schrimshaw's drums and, essaying mainly, British ballads, here is timeless storytelling that just happens to be set to music.
Wikipedia will tell you that the genus Rubus (flowering, berry?bearing plants) is a very complex one, and like taxonomy, like tales; ? rarely straight?forward. From the opening Cecilia (female highway?person tests her love's fidelity) learnt from the estimable Sussex singer Mabs Hall right through to the closing Sowing Song (a Thomas Carlisle poem that ended up in Wiltshire) from Alfred Williams' Folk Songs Of The Upper Thames, things are not always what they seem.
However, Emily's liner notes illustrate an informed and deeply rooted approach to her sources, and Nine Witch Knots is a crisp, literate piece of work, often noir?ish ? the album's title coming from Willie's Lady's mystical tale of familial jealousy, in which (hurrah!) the mother?in?law eventually gets her come?uppence. The vale of tears that is Greenwood Sidey is accented by Christi's slow?bowed fiddle while the stirring melancholy of Sheep Crook And Black Dog with David's subtle, reverent picking is simply sublime. Scrimshaw has the less?is?more approach to percussion effortlessly nailed ? he's elegant, spare and really does justice to the tracks on which he plays.
Contemplative, cautionary and at times, desolate; the ghosts that populate these songs are mostly uneasy and Emily describes the grouping's repertory as "weird and wonderful" but witch knots or no, it doesn't take much to fall under this record's spell.