Three albums and a varied set of collaborations from English folk singer Sharron Kraus. There’s something very earthy and striking about this lady. She plays acoustic guitar and banjo with immense fluidity, and her singing voice is unnervingly pure and sinister. Surrounding herself with other fine singers and musicians, she writes songs that sit neatly and proudly within the folk tradition. But as well as being a reverent keeper of the flame, Kraus is not averse – especially in the album with Christian Kiefer – to sidestepping the conventions of the genre. It’s this tension between the ease with which she inhabits the form, and the sly ways in which she stakes out her place within it, that makes the first two of these albums in particular so attractive.
The pick of the bunch, and the one I keep returning to, is The Black Dove, Kraus’s collaboration with Christian Kiefer. I know nothing of Kiefer except that he is from California, which kind of makes sense in the context of this record, a near-perfect blend of English folk and American alt.rock tropes. Where Kraus sounds cold, wintry and forbidding, Kiefer’s contributions are all dust and expanse; the combination is unusual, distinctive and highly effective. There’s some kind of concept to the record, revolving around a ghost’s presence in the mind of a former lover. Best not to try and unravel it, however, and focus instead on the spooky atmospheres Kraus and Kiefer create together.
Kraus sings lead on five tracks and contributes backing vocals elsewhere. Her voice has something of the chilly calm of Shirley Collins but is higher-pitched and purer, while her acoustic guitar and recorder playing evoke Thunder Perfect Mind-era Current 93. And the comparisons don’t end there, since Kraus shares David Tibet’s attachment to the notion of a beguiling simplicity as the still centre of a vast cosmic catastrophe:
“The blackest crow shall soon turn to white
If ever I prove false to you,
bright day shall turn to night”
(“The Blackest Crow”)
What makes the album really special, though, are the interventions of Kiefer, which turn the album’s apocalyptic folk starkness back in on itself. Kiefer takes breathy, autumnal lead vocals on four tracks, and with his slouching alt.rock brings a sense of widescreen purpose to counterbalance Kraus’s deep, willed melancholy. On the epic “Mourning,” for example, Kraus icily relates how “when you jumped, my spirit fell and was dashed on the rocks with you” as the song lurches violently towards a convulsive instrumental coda.
The other two albums in this batch contain plenty of fine moments, but never quite succeed in capturing the sense of restless energy that makes The Black Dove so rewarding. Kraus’s 2002 début, Beautiful Twisted, lives up to its title with a collection of original songs that play folk simplicity off against vivid, often death-obsessed lyrics. It’s fairly chilling to hear Kraus intone a line like “the bodies from the cellar are rising up again” (“The River’s Daughter”) against a backdrop of eerie banjo and violin. The unexpected incest payoff of “Twins” and the nasty spell of “Death Jig” pile on the terror, while the lilting and delightful “Moonbathing” offers up some much needed light relief. “Godstow,” however, is just too stiff and inert for words, while Kraus’s words risk bathos on “Cold-Hearted Devil” (“you’re not much fun”) and “Song of the Unfree” (“where this story begins and where it ends”).
Although there are limits to my tolerance of Beautiful Twisted‘s relentlessly sombre subject matter, Kraus’s achingly pure and poignant delivery lends the album a certain cobwebby beauty. Right Wantonly A-Mumming, unfortunately, feels slight and inessential by comparison. As Kraus explains in her sleevenote, her aim with this album was to write songs that celebrated the seasons and would sit comfortably alongside traditional songs of a similar hue. Nine of the fourteen tracks are Kraus originals, and in fact it’s their uncomplicated fidelity to the folk tradition that nonplusses me somewhat. You hope, in a contemporary folk record, to hear something a little more acute than “wonders do unfold, as the new year succeeds the old.” Unlike recent work by Marissa Nadler and Mary Hampton, there is no sense here of a modernist sensibility at work. Appropriately enough for a record that brings in meat-and-potatoes folk club stalwarts Jon Boden and John Spiers to play on it, the overall mood here is one of stodgy worthiness. Yes, Kraus comes across as a serious and committed artist, and the album is a perfectly realised invocation to the cyclicality of the seasons; but the songs sound like they could have been performed at any time in the past 200 years. Clearly that was the intention, but the sense of listening to a history lesson set to music is unfortunately inescapable.
(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)