Mary Hampton: Book Two, My Mother’s Children

Mary Hampton follows up her remarkable debut Book One with two further dispatches from the disquieting core of modern folk music. Book Two, as its title implies, is a kind of sequel to the earlier record, another self-released six-track mini-album. Where Book One carried the subtitle “six songs of refusal,” Book Two is labelled “six songs of hunger”: hunger as in desire, perhaps, an emotion which looms large throughout the record. Four of the songs are are traditional English folk ballads, while the other two are settings of poems by Yeats and Hannah Murgatroyd.

On these six songs, Mary Hampton again demonstrates her unerring ability to sing a centuries-old song and make it sound utterly, rivetingly contemporary. Sounding like the ghost child of Sandy Denny, she sings in a voice impossibly high and pure, yet possessed of great wisdom and the merest hint of evil:

“Well I had to tell him some things are secrets
All you can do is smash them to nothing” (“Silver Pebble”)

“Pretty Polly” is a deathly anatomisation of tragedy and betrayal, a murder ballad so epic and chilling it makes Nick Cave’s efforts in this vein sound like a night in the pub with Girls Aloud. Hampton accompanies herself on spiralling acoustic guitar and adds sinister threads of violin and cello, adding to the song’s unnerving sense of dread and loss.

Like the earlier collection, Book Two comes with a large lyric sheet that has been intricately folded down to fit inside the CD sleeve. Once you’ve unfolded it, it’s hard to get it back to the way it was. Likewise, Hampton’s treatments of these songs expose the listener to emotions and states of mind that run deep through history, but with that exposure become irrevocably closer and clearer.

The Drift CD is Hampton’s first “proper” album, a collection of ten self-penned songs. Inevitably, what impresses most is the way they sound entirely of a piece with the traditional songs on the earlier records, tracing bleak narratives of desire and longing. With more musicians at her disposal and, presumably, a larger recording budget, Hampton brings a richer, fuller band sound to tracks like “Honey,” setting a panoply of strings and percussion against her radiant, transported vocals. The witty “Ballad of the Talking Dog” strips things down to just acapella voices, handclaps and whistling, while on “The Bell They Gave You” Hampton turns to the piano to frame her dramatic, terrorstruck imagery:

“The eel cries out before it is skinned
A strange scream in the high night”

Throughout the album Hampton’s voice, her distinctive guitar work and the swooning rapture of her texts combine to produce an exquisite desolation that puts her far ahead of most contemporary acoustic music.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

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