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)

Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Mary Hampton: Book One

At a time when it sometimes seems that one cannot move for new folk, free folk, freak folk, weird folk, outsider folk and goodness knows what else, it’s an unqualified joy to discover a collection of songs that sit proudly and uncomplicatedly within the folk tradition. And yet, while Mary Hampton’s début CD (a mini-album, really, with six tracks clocking in at 30 minutes) derives much of its appeal from its appropriation of centuries-old folk idioms, it is certainly no museum piece. Its unearthly radiance and undercurrents of desolate modernity transform it into a vital and contemporary living document.

Hampton’s musical and spiritual antecedents are the spectral English voices of Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny, although one also hears echoes of recent work by Marissa Nadler and that staple of otherworldly folk moves, the Wicker Man soundtrack. The album is subtitled “six songs of refusal”; refusal of what? Characteristically, Hampton doesn’t answer the question directly, relying instead on the latent imagery of her chosen texts and the icy chill of her voice to reinforce her message of hope and defiance against the iron grip of history.

Hampton is no prissy English waif; two of the six songs are flinty American ballads, and a third is a setting of a text by that most debauched and feverish of poets, Baudelaire. The two American songs, both narrated by female protagonists, bookend the album on similar notes of imprisonment and yearning: the woman in the opening ‘Silver Dagger’ “wish[es] I was a little sparrow…one of those that flies so high”, and the closing ‘Fare Thee Well’ laments: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly across the river to the one I love.” Yet while the narrator of ‘Silver Dagger’ withdraws into bold, self-willed solipsism (“I’ve decided to sleep alone all of my life”), the woman in “Fare Thee Well” feels her sense of self dissolving in rapturous erotic surrender:

“But I’ve got a man, he’s long and tall
He moves his body like a cannonball…
One of these mornings and it won’t be long
You’ll hear my name but I’ll be gone”

All the while, Hampton’s bewitching voice and luminous acoustic guitar envelop these visions of escape in clouds of radiant beauty.

The Baudelaire adaptation, ‘Eros’, is one of the album’s two highpoints, an epic seven-minute drama that recounts in chilling detail a dreamed encounter with a fiery-eyed lover. On this, the only one of the six tracks to be recorded with overdubs, piano, violin and sparse percussion thread their way ominously through the lyric’s dark tracery of seduction and vulnerability. Hampton’s voice is double-tracked for the words of the lover, creating a sense of unease that is compounded by the eerie stillness of the arrangement. At the song’s end, a woozy harmonium drone floats by, starkly dramatising the evanescence of the vision:

“And when I woke in the light of day
I recalled the line of my lover’s back
I would not drink, and he took his leave
But come back, love, come back.”

The album’s other stand-out track, “The Gardener”, also proceeds for seven long minutes on waves of sinister violin and brushed percussion. The song’s rapt imagery of colours, elements and flowers is framed by gorgeously languorous sonic increments and the barest hint of a rhythmic pulse. Her voice steeped in mythopoeic richness, Hampton sings like a prophesying angel: “the mirk-black rain shall be your coat, with a wind-gale at your breast.”

Rounding out the set are two shorter, sunnier pieces, the traditional ballads “Love Me Little” and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” (the latter previously recorded by Anne Briggs, Shelagh McDonald, Sandy Denny and Pentangle). On these tracks Hampton turns to the tenor guitar, a four-stringed acoustic with a bright and bell-like timbre. With their gentle wordplay and attention to plants and flowers, these songs represent the folk lyric at its most idyllic and pastoral. In reclaiming them as songs of refusal, Mary Hampton declares her fidelity to the folk tradition while asserting a committed and self-assured engagement with the hopes and fears of the modern age.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)