Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen – Bottle (2015)

This blog is not the work of an expert critic. Apart from anything else I’m not well enough connected; don’t know where to find the pulse, let alone get a finger on it. So I don’t know a whole lot about Tim Eriksen. I know rather more about Eliza Carthy – daughter of two of the greatest 20th century folk musicians and well up to the implied challenge, thank you very much.

I’ve seen both of Eliza’s parents perform. They are considerable performers, and what struck me about both of them is that they don’t deal in museum pieces: They present the oldest songs as living, vital things. Respecting a tradition doesn’t mean you have to pussy foot around it.

And there’s no pussy footing around here. The opening “Buffalo” sounds like Carthy jamming with Crazy Horse when they’re having an especially noisy day

Which is not that unlikely a proposition. Eliza Carthy has constantly challenged preconceptions about how a ”folk” artist should present themselves and their music, as well as writing her own material.

Eriksen, as I understand it, has a similar profile on the other side of the Atlantic. He is known for his command of folk instruments and American folk styles (notably the choral Christian music of the Sacred Harp tradition) but also has played in electric bands.

Many of those career threads are woven together here. Eriksen plays a distorted electric guitar on several tracks, though all the material is from various folk canons. This works well with Eriksen taking advantage of the extra power and sustain, but also playing parts that are apposite.

The second track, Logan’s Lament (referencing a small frontier war between settlers and an Iroquois clan) generates significant power from just the guitar and Eliza Carthy’s superb vocal. She’s long been a distinctive and convincing singer, not a carbon copy of her mother (the great Norma Waterson) but having similar gifts. This album has done nothing to reduce my growing enthusiasm for Eliza Carthy as a singer or as a player.

The punk-folk ethos is all over the album. Even the tracks where Eriksen doesn’t play electric guitar have an immediate, slightly rough feel to them. Some of the tracks are recorded live at duo shows, others in the studio but they sound just as live.

They get downright bawdy on the title track, which also features DIYish percussion that although small in scale generates a deceptive rhythm, Eriksen supplies harmony vocals and fine banjo playing.

The vocals interested me a lot. Several times when Carthy sings lead, Eriksen adds harmonies that range far and wide, that are complex, have him jumping around his range and sometimes don’t have a lot to obviously do with the melody. It’s an uninhibited sound and it reminded me of the approach that Robin Williamson used in the Incredible String Band and the contributions that Eliza’s uncle Mike made to the Watersons. Perhaps then, this approach derives from sole ancient folk singing tradition. The approach is most striking on the a capella “May Song”, which Eliza has recorded before on a Waterson:Carthy album. The two arrangements are markedly different to suit the different vocal setups. Here Eriksen’s harmony entwines itself around Carthy’s melody to marvellous effect.

Eriksen, who does not play second fiddle (ouch), takes the lead vocal on “The Traveller” and the roles (but not the effect) are reversed as Carthy adds an unhibited second vocal and noisy fiddle to accompany the electric guitar. It’s a spiritual, but nothing like the anodyne contemporary “Praise and Worship” sound. They present an ecstatic, perhaps more primitive take on WASP gospel music. Personally if knew of churches that had this good a musical time I might pop in for some of that old-fashioned, uninhibited happiness.

Folk songs are not museum pieces. They are lusty, living, vibrant and don’t need mollycoddling. It seems to me that what is going on here is just an extension of what Eliza Carthy’s parents have done. This album is, despite the production and instrumentation, affectionate and respectful to these old songs. Carthy and Eriksen are informed by tradition, and clearly respect it, but are not bound by it. So they present us with music that is vital and full of passion and great singing and playing.

Bottle is a thrilling and vital restating and updating – and an enrichment! –  of the folk canon from both sides of the Atlantic by two skilled and intriguing musicians from each side of that same ocean. And another feather in Eliza Carthy’s rich and varied musical cap.

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