As has been written many times and in many places, the English folk scene has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past decade after the barren days of the 1980s and early 1990s threatened to cast the genre into the backrooms of obscure rural pubs forever.
While the ‘folk-pop’ of non-traditional artists like Mumford And Sons and Laura Marling has attracted the most public attention (to the chagrin of many purists), equally significant has been the emergence of a number of more grass roots artists steeped in the music’s history but also able to imbue hoary old songs with new life and vibrancy. One such performer is Derbyshire’s Bella Hardy, who first rose to prominence in 2007 with her debut album Night Visiting, featuring a combination of reinterpreted folk standards and her own compositions.
A gifted fiddler blessed with an effortlessly pure singing voice, Hardy has taken a bold step on third release Songs Lost & Stolen and opted to dispense with the traditional material entirely. But it’s still relatively rare for a folk singer to rely entirely on their own songs and, over the duration of a whole album, her confidence doesn’t quite pay off.
Ironically, the best tracks on Songs Lost & Stolen are the mostly the ones that sound like they were written a century or two ago. Herring Girl, a bittersweet tale of a young lass who leaves home to work in the Scottish fishing industry, is like something straight out of a Victorian romantic novel, but rendered with authenticity and skill. Flowers Of May is a beautiful, timeless ballad, with Hardy sighing wistfully over a glistening harp.
Elsewhere, Hardy does a passable Joni Mitchell turn on liltingly melodic tracks like Rosabel, Promises and Full Moon Over Amsterdam, and Good Friday’s jangling Celtic folk rock is toe-tappingly pleasant, but some of her more ambitious attempts to broaden her style are unfortunately less successful. Walk It With You is a limp attempt at country and the skiffle of Written In Green stretches that normally blissful voice uncomfortably beyond its natural terrain.
One element of Songs Lost & Stolen that can’t be faulted is the quality of the musicianship, which is faultless throughout. Hardy has used her burgeoning reputation to attract an impressive guest list of folk luminaries to play on the record, including Kris Drever and former Kate Rusby and Eddi Reader guitarist Anna Massie. Produced by Mattie Foulds (a member of critically acclaimed collective The Burns Unit alongside the likes of King Creosote, Emma Pollock and Karine Polwart), Hardy’s sound is given a warm, crisp sheen that brings out the textures of her songs well.
Overall though, there’s something missing that stops Songs Lost & Stolen, accomplished as it is, from really standing out as a significant work. Over the last couple of decades, a large number of female folk singer-songwriters have made their mark – the aforementioned Rusby and Polwart, Kathryn Williams and Eliza Carthy to name but four. Hardy may well deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these artists, but is she doing anything that they can’t?
Many of the most exciting breakthrough acts on the scene in recent years have a unique selling point – Bellowhead‘s big band dynamic; the spectral otherworldliness of The Unthanks; the raw energy of Seth Lakeman. Hardy’s undeniably a talent, and Songs Lost & Stolen is a tasteful, better than average folk record that many aficionados will enjoy, but it lacks that extra ingredient to make a lasting impact or reach a broader audience.