Eliza Carthy has carved out a successful career to become one of Britain’s leading folk artists. Whether tackling traditional folk music (as per 1998’s ‘Rice’), or her adding folk elements to adult contemporary music (2011’s ‘Neptune’), Carthy’s albums are often solid, thoughtful affairs. Somewhere over the water, Tim Eriksen has made his name taking traditional American folk roots and adding his own charm, firstly as a member of Cordelia’s Dad, but also in a stripped back solo setting. The talents of these two geographically opposed musicians comes together for the first time on 2015’s ‘Bottle’, a record that’s quite dark in places, but often rich in appeal; the largely unaccompanied talents of both folkies left to stand starkly.
Not wanting to break anyone in gently, ‘Buffalo’ finds both musicians really giving it their all. Eriksen powers with a distorted guitar, which combined with Carthy’s fiddle seems jarring at first. After having a little time to tune to tune in your ears, the results are startling, like an old traditional folk tune re-interpreted by Bob Mould. The blend of the two performers’ voices is a great match here with Carthy’s higher registers cutting through the drones while Eriksen’s more understated style, naturally, more in step with his guitar playing. ‘Logan’s Lament’ is more focused, although not necessarily any more smooth. Eriksen churns out distorted guitar notes throughout; his sparing approach to his instrument creating odd, disturbing bursts of noise, over which trad folk elements provide a simple melody. Imagine Richard & Linda Thompson playing something lo-fi with Richard in a particularly obtrusive mood, and you’ll get part of the overall picture. Once again, and maybe even more so than on the opener, the stripped back arrangement allows the voices to blend in a most wonderful way – Carthy’s lilting cry providing a strong melody throughout, with Eriksen’s deeper timbre, mumbling, occasionally crooning.
Those hoping for something a bit more traditional will find an instant love for ‘Castle By The Sea’, a gentle acoustic number that has a strong hint of sea shanty at its heart. Taking the pace of a gentle jig, this is a great showcase for Tim’s finger-picked acoustic work, fine and effortless throughout, a perfect companion to his weary vocal. At under three minutes, its short but in folk terms is hugely appealing. Having taken a back seat for that number, Carthy takes the reins at first for ‘Cats and Dogs’, a sprawling tale of the sprawling oceans, each line in tune with her gently crying voice, providing a strong melody atop a plucked fiddle. At the mid-point, she is joined by Tim, once again providing a deep, almost chocolaty contrasting harmony. Hugely understated, always with the focus on the voices, the harmonies of these two performers have hints of John Falkner and Sandra Kerr, everything soaked in an English charm, despite one of the performer’s American roots. Also in keeping with the sea, a rousing rendition of ‘Whitby Lad’ offers another fantastic vocal from Carthy, her rich tones carrying the melody, while banjo and scratchy fiddle lay down a traditional tune. In pure folk terms, this is hard to beat.
The title cut takes the bare-bones nature of these recordings to their extreme. With a beat provided by handclaps and heavy stomp, the tune builds from the rhythm, Eriksen plucking at the banjo, Carthy giving another smooth and near faultless performance. Again, the feel of an old English jig is at the forefront, but there’s a looseness throughout that’s most unexpected; in some places it’s so naturally fluid the vocals and banjo becomes estranged from the anchoring beat. While this mightn’t be to everyone’s liking, it certainly gives the piece a feeling of genuine spontaneity. With a very maudlin air, the brooding ’10,000 Miles’ provides another standout performance, with Carthy’s fiddle playing taking on a very brooding, almost funereal tone. This provides a great foil for a slow fingerpicked guitar tune, again tapping into the darker side of traditional folk. At the other end of the scale, during ‘Traveler’, Eriksen churning out distorted guitar notes akin to Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their most obtuse. It’s noisy, yes, but always charming, especially once he curls his voice around a pure folk melody that’s at absolute odds with his guitar hammering. Terrific stuff.
Due to the huge involvement from Tim Eriksen, parts of this album are quite unlike anything Eliza Carthy has released before, though those who loved the traditional elements of 2004’s ‘Rough Music’ are likely to get the most from the experience. And it is an experience: the contrast between distortion and the purity of her voice is striking; the character of Eriksen’s vocal tones once he steps from the shadows adds character to the bulk of the material. This is a natural pairing indeed, one of the best of their generation; if you can tune in to the sparse style of the recording and the guitar sound, you’ll discover Eliza and Tim giving thirteen performances worthy of rivalling folk’s finest.