17 Sept 2016

Jo Lepine "As The Blackbird In The Evening"

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Singer Jo Lepine is perhaps best known to listeners here for her sterling work with The Owl Service, who almost single handedly revitalised the field of psych/acid folk over the last decade. Their recordings, from the quietly influential and mesmerising debut 'A Garland Of Song' to their stripped back, majestic swansong 'His Pride. No Spear. No Friend.' provided new breath and body for the wandering spirits of those traditional ballads that were once inhabited by the holy triumvirate of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. It is a delight then to find that this linage and muse continues unabated with 'As The Blackbird In The Evening', a magical and intimate album three years in the making that is equally recommended for both Owl Service aficionados and lovers of the psychedelic side of folk music alike. This recording is described as a 'return to her first love, that of storytelling' and it is indeed an album of characters, tales and tradition that is both ageless and utterly captivating.

The album opens with the brief but hauntingly lovely 'As The Blackbird In The Evening', a hymnal performed solo by Lepine herself. This serves to create an almost hypnotic capture and hold for the listener, deepening anticipation for the song and stories that lie ahead. The French traditional ballad 'She Is So Cold' follows, a wintry lament with Jo's ghostlike, echoed vocals framed by the sound of glistening bells and cold, arctic winds. Hugely affecting, this is a song which stays with the listener long after the track itself has finished and a genuine a sense of timelessness pervades - this feels like it could be being sung a century ago and be simply being channelled into the here and now. Next 'Grey Dolphin (Or The Earl Of Shurland's Horse') recounts the sad tale from 'The Ingoldsby Legends' of the Earl's escape from a witch's predictions of his death by the sacrifice of his loyal steed; however, Lepine cleverly and uniquely focuses the song from the perspective of the animal, wronged and condemned by his fearful master. Psych folk master Sand Snowman provides an eloquent and evocative acoustic backing that conjures both an air of melancholy and mysticism to help create a truly memorable and haunted work.

The much interpreted Border Ballad 'The Three Ravens' is given new life by Jo's immaculate solo, acapella rendition, the sense of loss and the turn of the wheel of life much in evidence here. For this listener, a keen reader of the traditional ballads who has heard various interpretations of both this text and its Scots variant 'The Twa Corbies', hearing Lepine's version is a spine tingling experience and I would not hesitate to count this one of my favourite renditions, perhaps the best. It is that special. 'Happiness Is A Porpoise Mouth', a cover of the Country Joe And The Fish number, is a masterful sea shanty replete with hurdy-gurdy, trombone, tuba and trumpet; again there is a sense of a timeless tradition being connected with here, that we could be hearing the sound of sailors on docks from a time long since past. A further Border Ballad follows with the eternal 'Tam Lin', the tale of fairy enchantment and the perilous escape of Tam and his lover from their spell. Lepine opts to recount the tale unaccompanied which proves to be remarkably powerful; Jo's vocals are as clear as running water and tinged with a deep melancholic air which perfectly suits these ancient folktales. This is true storytelling, keeping these old stories alive and vital for both the present and future generations.

Another traditional number, the Orcadian 'The Selkie O'Sule Skerry' (one which sadly rarely seems to find itself sung or interpreted in folk music circles), provides an opportunity for Lepine to duet with Philip Martin who also contributes bewitching hurdy-gurdy to the piece. A slice of musical perfection, this listener could listen to this exceedingly beautiful version of the tale of the seal people forever and a day. Otherworldly and entrancing, this has to be heard and will surely cast its spell upon any lover of The Owl Service, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs or psych folk in general. The album closes with a spectral, live version of 'Fair Isabelle' from the Leigh On Sea Folk Festival, Lepine's soaring voice floating over hurdy-gurdy drones; you could hear a pin drop and one imagines the audience rapt and held on every word and note.

A very special album indeed and one which carries on a lineage of folk recordings that display a deep respect to the source material but are equally unafraid to interpret the material in a unique and personal manner, 'A The Blackbird In The Evening' is a truly lovely and evocative piece of work that comes highly recommended. To miss out on this album is to miss out on a psych folk treasure; seek out this album now,

Available as a download at Jo's Bandcamp page and as a limited edition CD with stunning artwork and extensive linear notes.

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