Folk music has enjoyed a major resurgence in the last few years, and one of the prime movers and shakers has been Scotsman John McCusker. Cementing his reputation as a man for all seasons, the Under The Sky project sees the violinist and multi-instrumentalist joined by a revolving cast list of musicians and singers on an ambitious recording.
Under One Sky has been extant for almost two years, with live shows featuring such notable names as Blur‘s Graham Coxon, Idlewild‘s Roddy Woomble, Julie Fowlis and John Tams. The hour-long vocal and instrumental suite was originally commissioned for performances at Celtic Connections and the Cambridge Folk Festival, and was so well-received that a follow-up UK tour was quickly organised.
Under One Sky has been meticulously thought out, with every last detail overseen by McCusker. The music’s blend of Scottish and English styles is performed by 12 musicians, six from England and six from Scotland.
Coxon and Woomble represent the rockier side of things (although the Idlewild frontman is now a fully-fledged folky in his own right), while folk legends Tams, Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion), Iain MacDonald (pipes/whistles) and Ian Carr (guitar) are joined by younger talents such as Fowlis, James Mackintosh (percussion), Ewen Vernal (bass), Emma Reid (fiddle), and Jim Causley (vocals).
The Under The Sky suite opens with the haunting strains of the title track, on which McCusker weaves snippets of traditional folk dance tunes into the 10-minute running time. His fiddle playing is astounding at all times, although Reid more than keeps her end up on the upbeat passages.
After this buoyant opening, the album segues into two lengthy vocal tracks. Causley takes first bow on Will I See Thee More/Hush A Bye. Talented though he is, his performance of the traditional Devon folk tune is dwarfed by Tams’ inimitable tones seeing the second half of the medley home. Like all lullabies, Hush A Bye charms because of it simplicity.
The striking voice of Julie Fowlis comes next on the album’s centrepiece, ‘S Tusa Thileas. Fowlis performs the not inconsiderable feat of maintaining the listener’s concentration over the track’s lengthy running time, whilst also diverting attention away from the rather syrupy string arrangement.
An ominous piano chord introduces the next track, Long Time Past/Lavender Hill. The chilling opening segues into a fiddle/accordion piece with a spot-on vocal from Woomble, whose days as an indie also-ran now seem a long time ago.
This wouldn’t be a folk album without a sprightly reel somewhere along the line, and Jigs, Strathspey & Reel fulfils this quota admirably albeit at somewhat excessive length.
All Has Gone initially seems somewhat jarring, with Coxon’s estuary accent at odds with the glorious singing that has come before. The track gradually wears the listener down, in a good way, and Coxon has surely never performed with such an adept group of musicians.
After the foreboding tones of All Has Gone, the album closes with the instrumental showcase Jack Seward’s/Boys Of The Puddle, an admirable showcase for McCusker’s fiddle playing and exquisite arranging skills.
Admittedly Under One Sky is not going to appeal to a huge audience outside the folk fraternity, but ageing indie kids could do worse than investigate its engaging charms.