Singer and harpist Rachel Newton has worked with The Shee and Emily Portman for a while, and has got around to releasing The Shadow Side. The debut solo album is filled with traditional English and Gaelic songs as well as a couple of Rachel’s own compositions.
The compositions are one of the most interesting parts of the album, and her harp playing and tune writing should be commended. Rung 2 slips from 4/4 to 6/8 and it doesn’t really seem to faze her. Soundboards and Sockets does strange things with the rhythms (it feel like there should be prize if you manage to work out what the hell it is...) and it just seems to be business as usual for her.
The styles vary wildly, from the lounge jazz style of Rung 2 to the more modern Discoboat. The accompanying parts also know exactly how to let the harp do its bit and stay out of the way, but still keep themselves heard. The wonder of simplicity is that it shines a big light on the apparent complexity of the rest of the piece, and it’s beautiful.
That style of arranging goes throughout the whole album. Occasionally it breaks into a minimalist style affair, like with S Toigh Leam Cruinneag Dhonn Nam Bo, which won’t be to all tastes. However, the arranging is designed with Rachel’s voice and playing in mind.
And that’s certainly something to be thankful for. Rachel’s singing style means that her voice is clean, and the embellishments are hit dead on - perfectly clean, and they’re hit in just the right place so the song doesn’t devolve into a trill arm race.
There’s only a couple of times where the arranging doesn’t seem to fit, and since the rest of the album fits perfectly it really sticks out. The duet with Kris Drever (Green Willow) has Kris starting off with a nice sensitive guitar part, which then becomes this strumming piece which isn’t anywhere near as interesting to listen to as before and somehow detracts from Rachel’s voice.
It would be less of an issue if the song wasn’t so interesting melodically and lyrically, but because you have to work past the change in style it makes it so difficult to listen to on the first time round. After a couple of listens the transition is much less jarring, but it’s something that can take you by surprise.
The other strange thing is the use of harps. The style of adding a harp off in the distance is a very subtle one - it’s difficult to tell whether you’d be able to hear it without decent speakers/headphones (and even then, it can be easily missed). They’re worth listening for, but it’s one of those things that can nag at you slightly.
This is a rather strange album. But it’s strange in the right way - there’s all sorts of various clashing styles, yet they all manage to flow, and aren’t different just for the sake of being different. It’s fascinating to listen to, and Rachel’s voice will probably make you happy while you’re doing all that hard thinking.