30 January 2018
Album review – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. “A major statement in contemporary folk adding considerable depth to an already personal approach.”
Graded on a Curve: Sarah McQuaid, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous
Sarah McQuaid’s prior releases have garnered deserved praise, and yet she has remained underappreciated in relation to her talent. She’s a gifted guitarist, with comparable vocal prowess, and her songwriting skill is … well, you get the idea. But with the imminent release of If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, it seems a higher profile is all but certain, as the record, a major statement in contemporary folk adding considerable depth to an already personal approach, continues her positive trajectory. Produced by the estimable UK guitarist Michael Chapman, it’s out February 2 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Shovel and a Spade Records.
Sarah McQuaid’s prior full-length Walking in White came out on compact disc in 2015. The result of the Spanish-born and Chicago-raised McQuaid’s trip from her adopted home in Cornwall, England to Cornwell, NY to record with her cousin as co-producer, ‘twas a solid effort, quite solid in fact, enough so that I worked-up a long glowing review, complete with some background on her earlier stuff, in this very column.
I’ll admit that after giving an artist the full review treatment once, with a few exceptions I’m hesitant to do so again, mainly due to the circumstance of underappreciation mentioned above; there is a considerable amount of fine music on the current scene that’s deserving of a wider audience, and it seems appropriate to cast the spotlight as wide as possible.
But as I said, there are exceptions; through songs that are increasingly sharp (McQuaid began her recording career more as an interpreter than as a writer) and instrumentation that remains top flight, If We Dig Any Deeper falls into my personal return engagement category. Overall, the set, her vinyl debut, delivers a slight but still tangible improvement on its predecessor.
McQuaid is an outstanding guitarist, but you don’t have to take my word for it; last year she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ards International Guitar Festival in Newtownards, Northern Ireland (she’s a master of the DADGAD tuning and wrote a book on it), an honor that’s been previously bestowed upon Davey Graham, John Renbourn, John Martyn, Martin Carthy and more august names.
She could easily coast on this skill without drawing much in the way of ire, but the opening title track here is closer to adult pop, though the thrust is heightened with surges of slide guitar by producer Chapman and the trumpet of Richard Evans. Wedding in White established an accessible nature that was quite comfortable exuding smart mainstream qualities instead of leaning on the crutches of folk purity or neo-edginess, and that continues here, but neither does McQuaid flirt with gussied-up insubstantiality, as “Slow Decay” is powered by her vocals, guitar, and a bit of piano with Samuel Hollis’ upright bass lending weight and color.
The brief but playful “One Sparrow Down” shifts gears, combining McQuaid’s vocals with recordings of animal sounds (her pet cat Nightshade, a pheasant named Bob) and a blend of percussion that connects a little like homemade tribal exotica. It nicely expands the album’s breadth, but the next track irises-in on piano and voice with Hollis’ upright again in support.
On her last disc, a closing version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” made unequivocal that she could vocally hang with the femme greats of advanced folksong (think Peggy Seeger, Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, and June Tabor), and “The Silence Above Us” underscores this fact, and moreover does so through an original composition, in the process delivering If We Dig Any Deeper a standout.
McQuaid hasn’t abandoned adding a few “covers” to her albums, here improving on Jeff Wayne’s “Forever Autumn” and offering her arrangement of the Medieval Gregorian chant “Dies Irae,” with both pieces fortified by the cello of Joe Pritchard and on the latter, more of Chapman’s slide. Loaded with atmospheric fingerpicking and no vocals, the superb “The Day of Wrath, That Day” takes its title from the first (translated) line of “Dies Irae,” as that track is connected to the intro of “Forever Autumn,” this thematic interweaving driving home the increase in depth mentioned up above.
Jumping slightly ahead in the sequence, “New Beginnings” is another gorgeous instrumental, one written as a wedding march for her friend Zoë Pollock, and it gets to the roots of her style. Those who dig it should look back on her earlier recordings. But going forward, the bright-hued, socially-engaged full band mode (introducing Georgia Ellery’s fiddle) of “Cot Valley” insinuates that McQuaid could make a whole album of gentle, non-precious Brit-tinged folk-rock. The same goes for the slightly bolder singer-songwriter-ish climes of the penultimate ode to post-mortem decomposition “Break Me Down.”
However, I don’t think being limited to one style is really her bag. “Time to Love” has the makings of a pop tune (if not pop “hit”), though the folk fragility (and baroque twist) she chooses is surely preferable to any straight-ahead route. And “The Tug of the Moon” finds her going it alone again, singing as she plays an Ibanez electric borrowed from Chapman. The rise in emotional intensity closes If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous on a high note, and through confidence and a refusal to play it safe, Sarah McQuaid has easily sidestepped the dangers of the backslide.
GRADED ON A CURVE: A-