Folking.com - David Harley - Album Review

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SARAH McQUAID – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous (Shovel And A Spade Records SAASCD001)
Ian Semple, whose radio programme on CoastFM specializes in promoting artists with a connection to Cornwall, describes Sarah McQuaid’s new CD If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous (due for release on February 2nd 2018) as ‘pure brilliance’ and ‘without doubt one of her finest…’. As this is the first of her albums I’ve heard all through, I can’t make that comparison, but on the strength of this CD, I’ll certainly be digging deeper into her previous output myself.

Sarah is known far beyond her adopted home in Cornwall as a fine singer, songwriter and guitarist, with particular expertise in the modal guitar tuning DADGAD. This CD also sees her work bolstered by a handful of other fine musicians, including veteran singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Chapman, who also produced it.

1. The title track ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’ might be summarized as “fear of fracking”, but that would be to understate the lyrical complexity of the piece. Sarah’s vocals and electric guitar are augmented by Michael Chapman’s slide guitar, Roger Luxton’s drums, and Richard Evans’ trumpet.

2. ‘Slow Decay’ also has a lyrical complexity that’s unusual, even among the more thoughtful contemporary singer/songwriters, playing as it does on the multiple meanings of ‘decay’ in acoustics, wave functions and mortality.

3. ‘One Sparrow Down’ has some of the feel of the acapella version of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner’, being sung unaccompanied apart from some unconventional percussion and sound effects. Vega’s song is essentially a sequence of observations and ‘found’ images. However, Sarah’s lyric, with its echo of Matthew 10.29, extends observation into metaphor. And I rather like the tune.

4. Unusually, ‘The Silence Above Us’ features Sarah’s piano well forward in the mix, as well as her guitar and Samuel Hollis’s upright bass. A lovely ballad.

5. ‘Forever Autumn’ is a cover version of the song from the Jeff Wayne project War Of The Worlds. I came across a lovely live version by Sarah on YouTube some time ago, but this version gains from the addition of her own piano work and Joe Pritchard’s cello.

6. The ‘Dies Irae’, a hymn in medieval Latin, the words very familiar from the Requiem mass (though not all the words are used here). This version is essentially the plainsong melody known since the 13th century or earlier, though in this case Sarah’s vocals are supported by her own guitar, Michael Chapman’s slide, and Joe Pritchard’s cello. Its presence here is particularly appropriate, since the opening line is echoed in the well-known instrumental intro to ‘Forever Autumn’. This setting seems particularly suited to her captivatingly fragile vocals.

7. The theme of mortality is continued with Sarah’s atmospheric instrumental ‘The Day Of Wrath, That Day’, the title being a literal translation of the first line of the ‘Dies Irae’. Sarah plays electric guitar on this, augmented by Roger Luxton’s percussion and some ambient noise from Michael Chapman’s guitar. Spine-chilling.

8. Although the lyric to ‘Cot Valley’ takes into account the valley’s place in the history of Cornish mining – and the (mis)use of child labour here and elsewhere in Britain right into the 20th century – it also works as a reminder of the way in which beauty spots in so many places – not only Cornwall, but (for instance) Shropshire, South Wales and the North East – have outgrown their dark industrial past. Unusually, Sarah augments her own acoustic guitar work with high-strung electric guitar – that is, a guitar with the four lower strings replaced (usually) with the octave strings from a 12-string set – while the instrumentation is further filled out with Michael Chapman’s electric guitar, Richard Evans’s trumpet, Georgia Ellery’s fiddle, percussion from Roger Luxton, and Samuel Hollis’s upright bass, to great effect.

9. ‘New Beginnings’ is a very neat guitar piece, written as a “wedding march” for Zoë Pollock’s wedding. I think this one might just creep into my own repertoire.

10. ‘Time To Love’ was co-written with Gerry O’Beirne, and features Georgia Ellery and Joe Pritchard double tracking violin and cello as a sort of counterfeit string quartet.

11. ‘Break Me Down’ is described in the press release as “possibly the cheeriest song ever written about decomposition” – I’m trying desperately not to think of the old joke about composing and decomposing – and that’s a pretty good description of this slightly bluesy piece. Sarah’s vocal, electric guitar and high-strung guitar are reliably supplemented by Michael Chapman’s trusty ES175 and Roger Luxton’s drums and percussion. But I was particularly impressed by Samuel Hollis’s work on both upright and electric bass.

12. ‘The Tug Of The Moon’ may already be familiar to you, having been released as a single. The song is more than adequately carried by Sarah’s vocals and electric guitar. Much as I love the acoustic guitar, it surprises me that more people don’t see (outside jazz, at any rate) the potential of the solo electric guitar as an instrument for accompaniment. Now there’s a song for New Year’s Eve…

This is an album of fine instrumental work that never detracts from the song or the vocals. And the songs are exceptional: some of the lyrics here would look equally at home in a volume of poetry, though it would be a pity to deprive them of Sarah’s voice and melodic flair.

I suspect that even Sarah’s fans will be pleasantly surprised at how good this album is, and it should make her many more.