David Kidman of fRoots
reviews Through Lonesome Woods by The Askew SistersThis second album from winning sibling act Hazel and Emily Askew, although again firmly traditionally-based, makes a virtue out of fresh and imaginative reinterpretation of its source material, in which respect it eclipses its predecessor. The opening track, which leads a spooky morris tune hesitantly by the hand into the lonesome woods of the title, is attention-grabbing for all the right reasons: an expert control of pacing and dynamics, glorious tone from both melodeon and fiddle, the instrumentation creatively and tellingly cascading back and forth beneath a captivating vocal rendition (by Hazel) of the beautifully dark imagery of the song text, and even some eerie vocal harmonies creeping in towards the close... magic. The sisters then bring us back to earth with a vibrant set combining morris and country dance tunes, taken at a not-quite-dancer-friendly lick!
This sets a kind of pattern that judiciously intersperses vocal and instrumental items through the disc, though with a balance weighted in favour of song. Aside from one sisterly a cappella item (the saucy Jack The Jolly Tar), all the songs make excellent use of the varying textures that can be achieved from combining sweeping reed and bow strokes in an impressive and intelligent versatility of switching of parts, combining and alternating melody and harmony lines for continued musical interest without distracting from the storytelling. The playing of both sisters uncannily shares the vital characteristics of being at the same time strikingly lyrical and full of atmospheric feeling, also packing an infectious rhythmic punch where desired - which on Paddy Carey's Jig even includes the adoption of what Hazel self-deprecatingly terms "a cheesy bassline"!
With Hazel's confident and mature singing, the responsiveness to the text works both ways and the inherent drama is invariably enhanced. A good example of this comes with The Bonny Bows Of London Town, a collation of various versions of the Two Sisters ballad, which draws much of its impact from ingenious use of instrumental effects and textures that avoids any sense of artificial contrivance. The sisters' fine version of the enigmatic Sweet Lemaney is a further illustration of their creative approach (and uniquely features duetting pizzicato fiddles), while their take on Lord Bateman is hardly less compelling. Hazel and Emily have clearly thought hard about how best to bring these songs alive, and their liner notes are just detailed enough to indicate they've done their research but without boring us with showy scholarship. Even on the more well-known song choices the sisters have something of their own to contribute to the folk process, and the disc is a triumph.