It’s hard to remember many times in recent years that a singer of straightahead, no-frills traditional English song has created the same level of excitement as Nick Hart. On his third album, we get ten examples as to why.
Though proficient on a whole number of instruments, Hart is a rarity among the younger generation in being a specialist solo singer, rather than someone who happens to be the main vocalist in any number of bands and projects. His self-accompaniment on guitar and other instruments often follows the line and rhythm of the vocal melody closely, placing the narrative and meaning front and centre. This approach is ideally suited to songs with an irregular metre such as The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood or Under the Leaves of Life.
The attention given to the craft of bringing a song alive through the singing itself rather than the arrangement around it shows in particular on the longer ballads. On a steady and measured rendition of Jack Hall, without resorting to ham or melodrama Hart creates a genuine sense of dolefulness at the narrator’s premature demise, slowing down and becoming more tentative in the final verses as he approaches the gallows.
Clearly a singer who prides himself on searching out the stranger nooks and crannies of folk melody, the selections here don’t disappoint in that respect. On Lucy Wan, a rite of passage for English folk singers with its haunting modal tonality and grisly lyrics, his clarinet accompaniment adds to the ghostly effect.
The similarly leftfield choice of Viola da Gamba as the main backing on Henry Martin is ideally suited to a twisting and turning melody with many notes that don’t fit neatly on any conventional scales, which Hart tackles with his characteristic controlled and sparing use of slides, bends and vibrato.
After nine songs with varying degrees of melancholy at the core of their stories or melody, closing track Our Captain Calls acts as palette cleanser with the stately Monks Gate and Thaxted tunes, and displays so much of what makes Hart a great singer, bringing an understated but highly developed technique to these well-worn songs without losing sight of the emotions bound up in the lyrics.
On Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs, there’s plenty to delight both those who’ve been familiar with the material for decades, and those discovering English traditional music for the first time; a modern classic made up of antique songs.Nick Brook
Released on CD and digitally April 29 2022 on Roebuck records
1. May Song
2. Jack Hall
3. The Outlandish Knight
5. The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood
6. Dives and Lazarus
7. Lucy Wan
8. Henry Martin
9. Under the Leaves of Life
10. Our Captain Calls