NetRhythms - David Kidman

May 2012 

Album review – The Plum Tree And The Rose. “A sublimely well-crafted calling-card for Sarah’s unobtrusive artistry.”

Sarah McQuaid
The Plum Tree and The Rose (Waterbug)

Sarah’s name is becoming increasingly well known in the UK through persistent touring and higher-profile exposure of late, but she remains something of a best-kept secret. More’s the pity, for hers is a consummate talent – she’s an exceptionally fine singer and a highly competent guitarist and writes thoughtful and attractive songs, while having great taste in selectively covering other folks’ material alongside her proven feel for traditional song.

And yet, between 1997 and 2008, Sarah released only two solo CDs (both recorded in Ireland, where she was living at the time); together reflecting her musical background, these complemented each other well, for the first focused on Irish traditional music and the second celebrated old-time Appalachian folk. These were followed in 2009 by a mesmerising joint album with fellow Penzance resident Zoë (Crow Coyote Buffalo).

Sarah’s long-awaited followup, The Plum Tree And The Rose, is satisfyingly listenable and, despite being stylistically more diverse, displays a keen consistency of vision and expression. The 13-track menu includes no fewer than nine of Sarah’s own compositions, which themselves display influences from folk to jazz and old-fashioned popular song. Best of these are the trio of songs which are connected by metaphysical concerns: the themes of spiritual questioning and the relationship between soul and place. Standout among them is the powerful, emotionally and poetically resonant title song (whose melody seems incidentally to reference The Snows They Melt The Soonest), whereas the monumental In Derby Cathedral fairly drips genius loci (and forms an apt companion to Hardwick’s Lofty Towers, Sarah’s recounting of the story of Bess of Hardwick who happens to be buried there).

Kenilworth, which imagines a courtly ode sung to Queen Elizabeth I, provides a musical time-tunnel leading to a pair of tracks later on the disc which share a loosely Elizabethan timeline: John Dowland’s plangent song of sexual frustration Can She Excuse My Wrongs? and a catchy little Thomas Ravenscroft round (New Oysters New).

The disc’s remaining two covers are very much contrasted: a 13th century Occitan alba (dawn song) receives an enterprising and appropriately sparse shruti box and tiple backdrop, whereas on John Martyn’s classic Solid Air Sarah’s limpid vocal cascades duet fetchingly with Bill Blackmore’s trumpet. Three of Sarah’s songs were co-written with Gerry O’Beirne, whose sympathetic and even-handed production perfectly suits Sarah’s special brand of artistic eloquence and accomplishment; The Sun Goes On Rising, a restless, anxiously shuffling socio-political commentary on the global economic downturn, is probably the finest of these jointly-penned items, but So Much Rain (a rumination on lost love and the changing of the seasons) runs it close.

A kind of elegantly minimalist understatement is a characteristic of Sarah’s music, evidenced as much by her subtle, well nigh impeccable guitar playing as by the musical content of the closing track, In Gratitude We Sing, a delightful round for six voices (a mere trifle in terms of playing-time, but very appealing indeed) which features the voice of Sarah’s friend Niamh Parsons. But the whole album is a sublimely well-crafted calling-card for Sarah’s unobtrusive artistry.