It’s a bit of a cliché but Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman need no or very little introduction. Having put their career as a duo on hold for some time prior to the release of 2012’s Hidden People, the BBC Folk Award’s Best Duo of 2013 return with a follow up record which is destined to cement their deserved standing as purveyors of songwriting at its very finest.
Having the appetite whetted with a live performance at the English Folk Expo event in Bury in October 2014 which previewed several songs, anyone lucky enough to have bagged a copy of the album pre-release will have been gleefully justified in reporting that the promise of the live performance is certainly followed through in the recorded artefact. In spades.
Made up of eight Roberts/Lakeman originals plus a couple of the trad arrs. together with what seems a deliberate paucity of instrumentation and the usual spate of guest appearances kept to a minimum, there’s a clear spotlight on Kathryn and Sean. The subject matter is almost archetypal Roberts/Lakeman, a balance of subjects close to their hearts (the family and whales), characteristically innuendo-laden tales in which they seem to specialise, and the more usual traditional folk topics of robbery and treachery, and even showing a penchant towards some topical social commentary in songs with political and protest themes.
Opening with a driving version of the traditional Child Owlet, they pull no punches and within a couple of minutes we’ve had incest, deception, betrayal and murder which by the end of the track becomes a gorefest with body parts strewn around a bleak moor.
While Sean has stamped his authority all over the first song with a insistent guitar part which propels the track along it’s Kathryn who takes over for 52 Hertz in which she addresses the discovery of a whale whose ’singing’ in a key which its companions can’t pick up results in the touching vision of a forlorn whale drifting the oceans searching fruitlessly for companionship, remaining a solitary and friendless traveller.
Just when you think it’s time to draw breath, take a deep breath for a ’grab the hanky’ moment. Kathryn Roberts is becoming known for offering up some of the most emotive lyrical ideas, carried through into performances which tug at the heart strings and evoke an emotional response which has been typified in the past with songs such as Tom Waits’ The Ballad Of Georgia Lee and her own Ballad Of Andy Jacobs.
With ’A Song To Live By’ she may have topped the lot and sent the emotion-ometer needle into the red. Written as a message of counsel to the couple’s children in song form, it will surely resonate with parents and when she sings the “Even if it feels like a cloudy day” line, it brings to mind Kate Bush at her finest. A song recorded live and organically on piano in their home music room, it beggars the thought about how she managed to get through the song without dissolving into floods of tears.
As an opening trio of tracks, it’s hard to beat (and hard to resist pressing the scan button to go back to the start and play all three songs again and again) but stick with it and you’ll get the title track with its contemporary theme of questioning political machinations and manoeuverings. Accompanied by a simple but rich bluesy acoustic guitar it typifies the more stripped back arrangements on the record which allow the quality of the compositions and the performances to shine brightly through.
Without wanting to dissect every track and their performance, the message is probably coming through that Tomorrow Will Follow Today is an extraordinary record.
While the contemporary issues of political trust and misuse of power raise their heads, the sprightly Banishing Book is a cautionary song which comes over as simply good fun with a sinister undertone and maybe even ever such a slight touch of subtle innuendo (or maybe not?).
The version of Rusalka is based on a well used traditional tale of an charismatic Russian mermaid luring the weak willed to their doom and delivered with a minimum of guitar and a distant and misty haunting vocal while the second nod to the trad arr comes in the tale of the treacherous Robber Bridegroom and shows their ability to effectively and inventively interpret traditional material. Again just simple guitar and voice combine to stunning effect.
Sean Lakeman’s production work with a number of artists in the folk/acoustic world plus his acclaimed work with Levellers has established him as an in demand producer with an ear for quality and class. An attribute with which he adds volumes to this album. Granted, working with a voice and minimum of instrumentation, the ’less is more’ philosophy works wonders in a production which is spacey and rich, allowing his wife’s voice the room to float and drift in and out of his own finely picked and strummed guitar and her own piano.
On a different tack, not only have the pair been busy in rebooting their recording output, they’ve also been active in creating some visuals to accompany the songs. The films for La Moneca and the slightly less serious effort for Child Owlet both have a bit of a thing going on with toy dolls, the latter being a truly wonderful piece of filmmaking by their twin daughters.
Showing a remarkable insight and interpretation of the Child Owlet tale, their film, infused with disturbing coloured filters and starring a fine collection of dolls (including a very Harry Styles looking figure to portray Lord Ronald) it would give some filmmakers a lesson in how to put a story across.
With the album closing while pondering on the thought of “I wonder what this year will bring for us” 2015 might well be looking extremely bright with the album release and a healthy set of tour dates set up. There’s no better starting point than this marvellous collection of ten songs spread across forty minutes in which there’s not a wasted second. Oozing polished style and panache, Tomorrow Will Follow Today would be a jewel in even the most ornate of crowns.Mike Ainscoe
Released on I Scream Records on 23rd February 2015.
1. Child Owlet
2. 52 Hertz
3. A Song To Live By
4. Tomorrow Will Follow Today
5. La Moneca (Queen Of The Island Of Dolls)
6. Down, Dog!
8. The Banishing Book
9. The Robber Bridegroom
10. Soft The Morning Sun