What does it sound like?:
I vividly recall being gripped and excited when I first heard ‘Crow Coyote Buffalo’, a 2008 album collaboration, released as Mama, between Sarah McQuaid and Zoë Pollock – one a shoestring, social-media savvy troubadour living in a rambling old house near Land’s End, the other a happily faded 80s pop star with enough residuals to live nearby in a yurt and potter about on a ukulele. Amazingly, Zoë’s perpetual-gap-year vibe and carefree music-making was somehow a perfect fit with Sarah’s hitherto defining characteristics of precision, planning and purpose. The album was a wild ride – thrilling, quirky and liberated. When Sarah was shaken out of her comfort zone, magic of a quite unexpected kind happened.
With Zoë’s free-spirit lifestyle proving incompatible with the business of tour dates, Sarah was back to being the precise, organised, careful cottage industry sole-trader of before. Her third solo album, ‘The Plum Tree & The Rose’ (2012), was also her third album with producer Gerry O’Beirne, all three recorded in Ireland. Although featuring some of her best song-writing, not least ‘In Derby Cathedral’, Sarah knew that the album ought to mark the end of her association with Gerry as producer (he has continued to co-write a song on each of the two albums since). As a listener, it was clear that the trilogy of albums that Gerry had produced – from the Irish trad-focused ‘When Two Lovers Meet’ (1997) through the Americana-flavoured ‘I Won’t Go Home till Morning’ to the celebration of Sarah’s distinctive song-writing, drawing from numerous wells, ‘The Plum Tree & The Rose’ – had been an exquisite refining of a template: precise, luxuriant, increasingly minimalist acoustic music with a smattering of extra textures and a rich, warm sound palette.
Sarah bravely – though in my view misguidedly – through caution to the wind and went to New York for 2015’s ‘Walking into White’, using her cousin Adam as a producer. The album includes some of Sarah’s most brilliant songs – ‘Jackdaws Rising’, the masterpiece ‘Yellowstone’ – but alas I cannot abide the frequencies and determinedly lo-fi production. I like the idea but not the actuality. For me – and many hold a different view – in acting to shake up her ‘sound’, she made the right call in principle, the wrong call in practice.
And so, we come to ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’. Did she get it right this time? Yes, yes and thrice yes!
Just like I did when I first heard the Mama album back in 2008, I’m playing it again straight after it’s finished. For the third time now. Though the sheer leap from precision and poise to brinkmanship and swagger is less surprising than before, it’s no less thrilling. Sarah is just brilliant. That’s the sort of sentence one could never have used back in the day, writing for magazines, but I can write it now, because that’s what I happen to be thinking as ‘Deeper…’ starts its third time around and there is no editor at the Afterword and this is a first-person review in real time.
There are similarities in the two albums’ presentation too: both are minimalist hand-drawn sketches; Sarah’s other four albums use the well-crafted colour illustrations of the same artist. From the very cover of ‘Deeper…’ we suspect this is a collection of music with edge. When we know that it was produced by veteran grizzled iconoclast Michael Chapman, the bones of suspicion acquire the overcoat of confirmation.
As the album notes attest, Michael was bowled over at a gig by Sarah’s precision and sophistication; Sarah was similarly blown away by Michael’s onstage presence, power and volume.
‘We are so different, the two of us,’ says Michael, ‘a perfectionist and a gambler, a planner and a chancer. We might need a referee.’
He was wrong – all they needed was a facilitator and Martin Stansbury, king of the unsung heroes and Sarah’s trusty manager, driver, minder and sound engineer, fills that role just as he did in the Mama project, as a recording engineer quietly able to bottle the lightning.
As with the awesome ‘Yellowstone’ on ‘Walking into White’, the title track of ‘Deeper…’ – opening the album – draws on a single line of conversation between Sarah and her young son and builds an epic of universality and profundity from it. ‘If we dig any deeper it could get dangerous…’ does indeed sound like a metaphor for a lot of things. The music throbs and trundles along with Chapman’s own distorted electric guitar punctuating Sarah’s electric (a first-time addition to the Sarah sound world). A broad-brush reference point might be Neil Young, but where Neil would have turned in a one-trick jam on the opening verse chords, Sophisticated Sarah creates rise and fall, tension and release with a bona fide arrangement that includes acapella interlude, trumpet (Richard Evans delighting here and elsewhere on the album), massed vocal harmonies, a B section, a middle-eight, contrapuntal backing vocals on the final verse… She makes it all seem so easy. Or, actually, Michael does – as producer, Michael has clearly taken Sarah’s arrangements and recorded performances and not buffed them up, as Gerry O’Beirne (with no disrespect intended) would have done, but rather buffed then *down* – added grit and retained the rough edges.
‘Slow Decay’ is another pondering of portent – the slow decay of a note, a person, a waveform… With only Sam Hollis’ thrumming double bass accompaniment and a little piano against Sarah’s cyclical DADGAD acoustic guitar pattern, the feel recalls the modal swagger of Bert Jansch’s second album – a similarity rammed home by the final unresolved note. Pure Jansch. I wonder was that one of Michael’s ideas?
‘One Sparrow Down’ changes the mood – beginning with drums and woodblocks as if it’s ‘Iko Iko’ and then an acapella melody redolent of ‘Tom’s Diner’. Features a guest appearance from Sarah’s cat.
The feel of ‘The Silence Above Us’ recalls the solo piano/vocal recordings of Sandy Denny around ‘The North Star Grassman And The Ravens’ – particularly ‘Late November’ – minor key, slow tempo, philosophical. Like Sandy at her best, Sarah’s words offer something akin to a narrative while being simultaneously opaque enough to act as a canvas for each listener’s own thoughts. Her music establishes the mood and sets up the viewfinder; we do the rest.
A cover of ‘Forever Autumn’ might seem surprising, but it fits perfectly into the album’s sequencing. Sarah has made a point of including one cover on her last couple of albums (John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’ and Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever’), and this Jeff Wayne/Justin Hayward-associated old chestnut is the latest example. Separated from the slight cheesiness of its original incarnation, it remains a beautiful melody and set of words. This interpretation, based on Sarah’s guitar and voice and Joe Pritchard’s cello, has an extra degree of emotional heft.
‘Forever Autumn’ transitions into a droning cello-led arrangement of a Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’. As Sarah’s notes point out, the opening of the chant bears an uncanny resemblance to the intro riff to the Jeff Wayne tune just passed. Sarah has a penchant for arranging ancient music – Medieval, Renaissance stuff and the like. She conjures a mood here, singing in Latin with her own skeletal acoustic lines, Michael Chapman’s distant electric drones, low-end cello and with uncredited rolling tom toms. It’s rather Pentangle-ish circa ‘Sweet Child’.
The doffs of the cap, intentional or otherwise, to vintage British folk-rock continue with the glorious instrumental ‘The Day of Wrath, That Day’. If Michael Chapman’s presence has been the cantankerous uncle roaming in the garden thus far, he kicks the door in with this one. There is a real sense of adventure and liberation here, and electricity (metaphorical as well as literal) rarely heard on a Sarah McQuaid record – not that she’s flailing around making a racket, but because one can palpably sense an artist being ‘allowed’ to be imperfect with a quietly thrilling piece of music, creating a recording even more thrilling as a consequent. Chapman’s grit made a pearl. Sure enough, Sarah’s notes explain she had an unfinished piece but Michael said ‘just sit down and play what comes out’. Two takes later, of Sarah with electric guitar and delay pedal, he said ‘That’s the one!’ and he was right. Michael’s own electric guitar adds ‘knocks, bangs, rumbles and feedback’ according to the credits, and Roger Luxton adds percussion. The sound world is not a million miles away from the swirling jam of guitar, violin and cymbal crescendos on Fairport Convention’s ‘A Sailor’s Life’ from 1969, though the pace more brooding.
The upbeat, major-key lilt of ‘Cot Valley’ – a full band with bass, fiddle, trumpet, percussion and guitars – takes the mood into the sunlight, in contrast to words based on the role of children in 19th Century Cornish tin mining. This is close to Laurel Canyon ‘70s singer-songwriter territory here, with a rousing refrain, earnest verses and Sarah (unusually for her) strumming rather than picking and even Michael Chapman playing melodic motifs on his (stubbornly distorted) guitar. It’s in the tradition of ‘Lift You Up and Let You Fly’ from ‘The Plum Tree & The Rose’ in both musical feel and the yesterday/tomorrow bittersweet vibe of the words (and her young daughter a touchstone in both).
‘New Beginnings’ is another McQuaid original instrumental, this one very much in the poised British fingerstyle or folk-baroque tradition (Sarah being a guitar player who uses exclusively the DADGAD tuning devised in 1962 by Davy Graham). By chance, given the other connections to Mama I’ve suggested above, Sarah dedicates this tune to Zoë Pollock. This is perhaps the one track on the album that could have graced any of the first three solo albums in terms of the general sound and performance. It fits okay here, though it’s the slightest piece on the record.
‘Time to Love’, a yearning ‘where are we?’ cry to the universe, immediately sounds like a close relation to ‘Leave It For Another Day’ – one of the highlights of ‘Walking into White’ and a standout at any McQuaid live show. Sure enough, the booklet reveals that this, like ‘Leave It…’ was written via email exchanges with Gerry O’Beirne, the producer of Sarah’s first three albums. The new song and its performance and arrangement – all three, aligned like planets – are exquisite. Stately, ravishing, enigmatic, like the ruin of some majestic old building that has always been there and is suddenly seen in a new light by a shaft of sunlight from an angle unexpected, momentarily recalling its glory. And then there’s a string quartet, almost – two violins, two cellos – just for a moment near the end, with the end leaving you still on a tightrope, motionless, holding your breath. It’s another masterpiece – and Sarah’s performance on it is a masterclass of concision and constraint.
That might well have been a terrific place to end the album. Still, after the exquisite minimalism of ‘Time to Love’, ‘Break Me Down’ returns to the vibe of the opening track, a full-band electric number, this time a smouldering electricity-drenched shuffle like a mid-70s John Martyn track, with double bass, rolling drums and warm, fuzzy distorted guitar patterns.
And to end, we have the album’s single, ‘The Tug of the Moon’, concerned with leap seconds and Newton’s Third Law. Sarah performs alone, with the loan of Michael Chapman’s electric guitar. It’s an existentialist cosmic waltz. She’s cornered the market, there. As always, a simple observation or a line of dialogue in Sarah’s hands gives rise to a world of possibilities and ruminations. Seeing a shared world in a new way, from a different angle, is the role of the songwriter. Sarah gets a gold star on that front.
This is a fabulous album. I’ve played it several times through while writing this. I will play it many, many more times. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sarah’s a brilliant song-writer and I always love seeing her live show. I’m so pleased this collaboration with a legend has proved so much more than a paper endorsement. Sarah brought the songs, Michael brought the attitude. Together they turned on the electricity.
What does it all *mean*?
It means I don’t have to feel bad about telling Sarah I don’t like her new record.
Goes well with…
Howling wind, rain, candles, whisky and warm fires…
Might suit people who like…
Any of the artists referenced above.