Being the daughter of English folk legends Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson (and the niece of Lal and Mike Waterson), you could say that music was very much in Eliza Carthy’s blood. It would also seem natural for her career to explore avenues of traditional (and traditional sounding) English folk music. She gained great praise for her double release ‘Red:Rice’ in 1998 – the first part fusing her folk songwriting with modern drum loops and the second being stripped back, venturing down a more traditional folk route.
Her fourth album (and US debut) ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ presents Carthy at her most commercial; the songs are more in the adult singer-songwriter pop mould than usual, although her folk influences are occasionally present.
The opening number ‘Whispers of Summer’ is largely representative of this album’s shift away from folk music. Eliza’s voice is still very much in the heavily accented folk vein and her gently played fiddle may put in an appearance, but this is tempered by an unobtrusive drum loop and backing vocals whose ‘oohs’ aren’t particulary folky. A far cry from the likes of ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ or the jigs and reels present on ‘Rice’, it feels like one of the album’s folkiest numbers, but it’s barely folk. It’s one of the only times Eliza gets anywhere near her trademark fiddle style and then that’s only a flourish rather than its main feature.
‘Perfect’ is lightweight pop which manages to remain charming due to Eliza’s lilting folky vocal; ‘Fuse’ makes excellent use of strings and Eliza’s voice carries much sadness. ‘Breathe’ is fantastic with its use of piano and Massive Attack style drum loop. The real star here is Barnaby Stradling whose bass playing is superb and adds much needed warmth. ‘Train Song’ is dark and brooding, where the vocals are used to create beautiful harmonies over the strings, in turn used sparingly to create atmosphere. Similarly, the bass-led ‘Whole’ works well due to being very musically understated. The end result is brilliant, but (as with a lot of ‘Angels & Cigarettes’) it’s not necessarily what some Eliza Carthy fans are looking for; it could just as easily have been a Beth Orton number. A cover of Paul Weller’s ‘Wildwood’ suits Carthy’s vocal style very well and is further proof that ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ seemed largely pre-occupied with the idea of being a cross-over album, introducing Carthy to an adult pop audience and hopefully breaking the US in the process.
If you’re not much of a fan of English folk in its purest forms but don’t mind a little creeping in, ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ offers your best entry point into Carthy’s work – and especially so, if you have a passing fancy for Kirsty MacColl or Beth Orton, for example. Eliza’s rendition of ‘Wildwood’ is worth your time alone.