Album review – The Plum Tree And The Rose. “An album of contrasts and surprises, all delivered with authority and sensitivity.”
The Plum Tree and The Rose
Sarah McQuaid was born in Spain, is of Irish heritage, grew up in Chicago and now lives in Derbyshire [Cornwall, actually! and I’m not exactly of Irish heritage but we’ll let that slide – S.McQ.]. Influences from all those widespread roots are evident on her third album which sets her own finely crafted lyrics against some surprising, much older pieces.
The album begins with the very contemporary Lift You Up and Let You Fly, which, in every respect, would be a standout track on any Mary Chapin Carpenter album. However, it is a curve ball. Instead of an album of American-influenced songwriter material, Sarah next takes us to Hardwick’s Lofty Towers, a celebration of the visionary 16th century designs of Bess of Hardwick: it’s one of three songs inspired by great English buildings – the others celebrate Kenilworth and Derby Cathedral, atmospherically summoned to the accompaniment of a distant trumpet. Among this trio of architectural anthems, sits an exquisite version of John Martyn’s Solid Air, a smoky jazz interpretation with Sarah’s guitar weaving melodies around Bill Blackmore’s trumpet phrases: John would have loved it.
By now, you know it is an album of contrasts and surprises, all delivered with authority and sensitivity which tie the album together – a 12th century aubade in medieval French, a Thomas Ravenscroft catch, a Dowland lovesong (the last is a truly subtle showcase for Sarah’s skilled guitar-playing).
The thread that runs through the album is the philosophical questioning which underlies most of the songs, significantly including the title track. A delight to hear but also something to thing about. One marvels at the verbal dexterity which can epitomise a vast and resonant cathedral in a deft eight word refrain:
Soul, flesh and bone
Glass, wood and stone.
Any fear that the album may seem fragmentary is perfectly resolved by the final track – a minute long gem called In Gratitude I Sing, an original Thanksgiving canon sung in impeccable unaccompanied six part harmony. It ties the album’s many strands into a brilliant baroque bow, a melodic masterpiece in miniature.
The track (and the album) end all too quickly. Thank goodness for the replay button.