CD Review: Sharp Stones and Tender Hearts, by Mal Brown

sharp stones

Personnel

  • Mal Brown: guitar, mandolin, banjo, diddly bow, vocals
  • Taff Brissenden: accordion, vocals
  • Bob Hands: guitar, vocals
  • Stuart Altman: whistle, saxophone
  • Mary Hands: vocals
  • Martin Hughill: mandolin, mandola, laude
  • Jane Altman: dance caller
  • Ben Jones: drums

Track by track review

  1. Arise

There’s a very dance-y feel to this CD in parts, and Arise is a good example. It combines the first section of the 1Branle Des Chevaux for the verse tune, with words and a tune for the chorus by Mal. If I tell you that the words for that chorus come from an International Workers of the World banner, you may well expect something that Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger or even Phil Ochs might have written, and in fact the lyric would probably have fitted very well into a Weavers concert (and nothing wrong with that) but the lively tune and arrangement is far removed from those dreary renditions of We Shall Overcome that you may associate with the folk movement of the sixties.

1A branle or bransle is a French dance form originating in the 16th century.

  1. Crazy Boy (Words and music Mal Brown)

Crazy Boy also has a political theme – ‘He’s a crazy boy. He trusts the politicians.’ – with a strong chorus.

  1. Where, tell me where? (revisited)

Mal’s words are set here to the tune of The Bluebells of Scotland, apparently introduced to the stage in 1801 by the actress and courtesan Dorothea Jordan. (It’s likely that the words were originally written as a poem by Anne McVicar Grant.) If you’re not familiar with the original, you may be reminded again of the 50s/60s and Pete Seeger’s Where have all the flowers gone: however, while Seeger based his words on the Cossack song Koloda-Duda, the question-and-answer format of the verses (and indeed the melody) suggest that he may have had the Scottish song at the back of his mind, consciously or otherwise. Mal’s words, while following the same format, have the contemporary theme of a 21st century squaddie returning from Helmand and reliant on ‘Afghan snow’ – and we’re not talking about frozen water or face cream in this instance.

  1. Crimea Bound (tune C.H.H. Parry, words Mal Brown)

The relationship between the folk tradition and hymn tunes hasn’t, as far as I know, been much explored up to now, though the relationship undoubtedly exists: for example, Vaughan-Williams appropriated the Dives and Lazarus/Star of the County Down tune as a hymn tune (renamed Kingsfold) used for at least two hymns, including one (I heard the voice of Jesus say) parodied in a version recorded by Jon and Mike Raven in the 60s (John Wesley). Vaughan Williams wrote many hymn tunes but also adapted quite a few traditional tunes for hymns (and for other compositions such as the Dives and Lazarus section of his Folk Song Suite, of course). He is also well known as a collector of folk songs and as a president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Earlier in his career, however, Vaughan-Williams studied with Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, whose hymn tune Repton (well known as Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, though it was originally written for the aria Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land in Parry’s oratorio Judith) Mal uses as the basis for Crimea Bound, telling the story of a young woman whose husband is pressed into service to go and fight in the Crimean War. It works beautifully: you could easily mistake it for a folk song or broadside, slightly reminiscent of The Recruited Collier, and in one or two places even of Housman, though without the latter’s obsessive refinement.

  1. I have Lost My Lardy Lay (Brown)

The next track sets a semi-nonsensical lyric to an attractive dance-y tune with an almost medieval arrangement (incorporation of a saxophone notwithstanding). Fortunately, Mal seems to be managing OK even without his Lardy Lay.

  1. Shrewsbury Bells (Brown)

You might expect from the title an exercise in musical tourism, but while there’s a flavour of change ringing to the melody, the words hint at darker concerns – ‘…I hear them toll/Their voices raise in pious praise and mind control’.

  1. Castner Kellner

In this instance, Mal has put his own words to a tune by hymnologist Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen and a percussive accompaniment. The lyric takes on an additional resonance if you know that the Castner-Kellner process involves electrolysis of an alkali chloride solution to produce a hydroxide. Mal writes: ‘Romantic songs are mostly written about rolling hills, crystal clear streams and moonlit nights. This one is about a Sodium Hydroxide manufacturing plant at Weston Point near Runcorn, Cheshire, UK.’

  1. Ard an Ratha (Height of the fort) (Brown)

This recollection of traditional music sessions on the coast of Donegal sounds suitably traditional itself, complete with a snatch of Gaelic in the chorus.

  1. Teaching/Hanwood Lullaby (Brown)

This track combines a poem (rather a good one) dedicated to a child, followed by a lullaby sung by Mal.

  1. Hanwood Lullaby

This is a more traditional-sounding version of the lullaby sung by Mary Hands.

  1. I like to sing (Brown-Trad)

Mal’s lyrics are here set to a variation on the tune best known as Three Jolly Rogues of Lynn or The Miller Weaver and Little Tailor. With its rousing chorus, I can well imagine this raising the roof and the spirits of the audience at a folk club or a song-friendly session.

  1. Vettie (Brown)

This track is somewhat in contrast to most of the other tracks on the CD, a song of love lost – or is it?

  1. That Song/That Dance

No composer credits are given to this, but it’s a short song with a great tune, the same tune being used immediately after for a dance called by Jane Altman. Which, to my astonishment (as a non-dancer, perhaps) works beautifully as a listening experience.

Summary

While this is a well-executed, cleanly recorded CD, there’s nothing clinical or overly-polished about it. Listening to it is rather like being in a folk club or song session listening to some very good performers from the floor offering an extended set of excellent, slightly unusual songs, many of which nevertheless probably go down very well with audiences who like to join in. In fact, I think one or two of those songs might eventually find themselves into my own repertoire. The instrumental work is excellent without being distractingly flashy: the vocal work is sometimes unpolished but somehow fits the songs perfectly. Sometimes I find I can conclude a CD review by saying ‘…if you like [some other performer] you might well like this.’ (Which isn’t the same as saying that they closely resemble/are influenced by/set out to copy [someone else], by the way.) In this case, I can’t think of anyone to whom I can usefully compare this, so that approach won’t work.   But if you like a good folk-y song session and your ears and mind aren’t closed to a slightly different style of songwriting, you might find this well worth a listen.

Contact details

One Lorry Music, Bryn Coed, Cruckmeole, Hanwood, Shrewsbury SY5 8JN; 01743-861159; mal@whackitsmackit.co.uk

£10 including postage (in the UK)

Review by David Harley