Nancy Elizabeth’s debut album Battle And Victory, recorded in a 17th century stone cottage in remotest Wales, is timeless in the sense of tracing England’s folk music strains backwards in time to the scenes in which they echoed. In so doing it builds into an eerie album from beyond several a ghostly grave. But it would be unwise to dismiss this album as mere folk music from a new young singer.
Lancashire-born Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe is, for starters, no mere singer. As well as writing the album on her own, she plays most of the instruments used on its 13 songs. These include a 22-string Celtic harp, khim, Indian harmonium, Appalachian dulcimer and bouzouki – as well as guitar. Cello, horns and percussion come courtesy of friends and it’s just as well – that other criticism cliche, “prodigous”, was heading her way too.
Her fragile, breathy voice is slightly flat in places, a quirk that gives her delivery a suggestion of a maid-of-the-meadows from times gone by, when milk urns dangled two to a pole across a hardworking shouler. Her voice does not woo or play a character but rather recounts, narrator-like, almost as though a ghost. Combined with shimmering string work and echo-laden production, the album as a whole is will-o’-the-wisp spectral, like the words and feelings of people speaking from another time, about other cares, about lives we no longer lead and to whose mysteries we are now but tenuously linked.
The instrumental 8 Brown Legs could easily sit on labelmates A Hawk And A Hacksaw‘s album and acts as a curious centrepoint of outlandish harp and bouzouki work and Coriander is an accordion-led waltz featuring horns that extolls the virtues of a selection of especially fragrant herbs. Some of the more recognisably traditional folk arrangements – I Used To Try and the compelling Hey Son’s opening, particularly – call Jacqui McShee to mind. Weakened Bow, an atmospheric number based on guitar, bears vocals comparison with Stephanie Dosen.
Other songs remind more of Clannad or Seth Lakeman, both of whom know a thing or three about making music to march to war by. Like Lakeman’s work, this music runs the gamut from military to rustic, runic tunes lamenting loved ones lost. It is by turns loud and quiet, reflective and pleading. The thin voice doesn’t always work, and when she double-tracks her vocal line on Electric and turns herself into a choir on Hey Son, the impression is that she knows it.
But it’s an absorbing debut, and as well as a record that underlines what is possible as an English folk music artist in 2007, it also throws open windows on many other colourful spheres of influence.