By NEIL RIDDELL
ONE OF Shetland’s most accomplished musical daughters makes her latest appearance on record this week with the release of top American singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new live album. Inge Thomson, originally from Fair Isle and once of Drop The Box, appears on Is It The Sea? as part of Scottish folk ensemble Harem Scarem.
Variously putting her hand to playing accordion, percussion and flute, as well as providing backing vocals, Thomson has been involved in numerous musical projects in the past decade, performing and recording most notably with UK alt-country favourites The Broken Family Band and folk singer Sharon King.
Since touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billy in 2006 she has spent a great deal of time travelling the globe and recording with well-known Scottish folk singer Karine Polwart, and 2008 has proved to be one of her most hectic years yet, taking in touring around Polwart’s latest outing This Earthly Spell as well as the impending release of Harem Scarem’s own record Storm In A Teacup, the latter due out early next month.
“Most of my live work is with Karine Polwart,” says Thomson, who turned 34 yesterday. “She keeps me pretty busy, and we’ve visited some amazing places including Armenia and Oman.
This year we’ve been to Ireland, Germany, Canada and the UK.”
In January she will make a number of appearances at the Celtic Connections festival, supporting former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews with Harem Scarem, playing a headlining date with Polwart and, separately, performing as part of the Seaquins project, which comprises women from across Scandinavia, Scotland and Canada and debuted at the Tønder Festival in Denmark this summer.
The start of 2009 also sees the release of an album by her husband and box player Martin Green, one third of pioneering trad act Lau. The two married in Fair Isle earlier this year and have a two-year-old son, Ewen. Thomson describes the eclectic record, entitled First Sighting and to be released under the moniker Green Machine, as a “very interesting mix of brass, vocals, spoken word, acoustic instruments and electronica”. Thomson sings on the album along with Sophie Bancroft, while distinctive Shetland writer George P S Peterson’s Dee an’ Me poem also features.
Before all that, though, the Bonnie “Prince” Billy album hit record stores on Monday, having garnered a series of glowing write-ups. Recorded live in front of a near-reverent audience at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh as part of a 15-date tour in spring 2006, it documents an intriguing and highly successful attempt to meld the sparse, hymnal material of the singer, real name Will Oldham, with a traditional – but never staid – folk backing.
Oldham has garnered a quite unfair reputation as a rather dour and depressing songsmith, but he is also lauded in other quarters as one of the finest songwriters of his generation: his haunting ballad I See A Darkness was laid down by Johnny Cash in the years immediately before his death, and some critics place his work alongside that of perennial singer-songwriter yardsticks Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Here, with the backing harmonies and sparing musical accoutrements of Thomson and the rest of Harem Scarem, in the shape of fiddles, banjos, flutes and keyboards, along with the delicate brushwork of Glaswegian drummer Alex Neilson, Oldham’s dark songs are brought to life in spellbinding fashion.
In what is her 16th outing on a long player, no less, Thomson showcases her skills on the buttons and by contributing fresh, soft-sung dual harmonies along with Eilidh Shaw to add a distinctive Celtic flavour to the music of the man from Louisville, Kentucky. But her most telling contribution is in composing the sea-themed title track, a graceful, breezy piece of music that drifts through its six minutes with majestic poise.
“The song was one I wrote especially for Will,” she says. “I thought it would suit him as he can surround a lyric with a beautiful air of tragedy. The sea often creeps into my songs in some way or another, usually with regard to the beauty or power of it; this one deals with fear.”
Stirring renditions of classic Oldham tracks like A Minor Place and the haunting Master and Everyone showcase an artist operating at somewhere very near the peak of his powers. Adding a douse of variety, the traditional song Molly Brawn is one of a trio of tracks transformed into captivating seven-minute workouts by the band, while the slightly eerie, ethereal quality of the music fits in perfectly with the venue, a converted church.
Like the rest of Oldham’s back catalogue, the music on Is It The Sea? is far from immediate, but has a slow-burning quality which suggests he is fully deserving of a place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Often releasing a live album can seem to be nothing more than a throwaway money-making venture, but the presence of Harem Scarem takes the songs here in a different direction with enough success to suggest that a future studio collaboration would be a very good idea indeed.