Yorkshire four-piece The Magpies – made up of singer-songwriter Bella Gaffney, mandolin player Polly Bolton, cellist Sarah Smout and fiddle player Holly Brandon – first burst onto the UK folk scene last summer. Since then they’ve spent the past year playing sold-out shows and festivals around the country, including sets at Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival and Shambala. Now they’re releasing their debut album Tidings, which showcases their blend of folk, bluegrass and Americana influences.
The 10-track LP opens with the band’s take on the traditional Two Magicians, which tells the story of a cat-and-mouse seduction between a lady and a blacksmith. It begins with a light, Celtic-influenced melody, which along with Bella and Polly’s breathy, sweet vocals acts as a great contrast to the dark, almost surreal storytelling in the lyrics. I also loved Polly’s mandolin riff leading into the sparse final verse.
That sets the template for much of the rest of the album, which mixes original material, instrumental tracks and traditional tunes like the wistful, bittersweet Galway Shawl. There’s also a joyous cover of Gillian Welch’s Rock Of Ages, which begins sparsely before picking up rhythm and taking on an almost ritualistic tone, with ethereal vocals that add a chanting effect. The album blends together seamlessly and it’s a great testament to the quartet’s skills as songwriters and interpreters that it’s night on impossible to tell where the covers end and the original material begins.
And it must be said that the original material is excellent. Lead single Run River Run has a dreamy feel, with vivid imagery and echoes of Natalie Imbruglia’s 90s classic Torn, as well as great storytelling about the seductive yet dangerous power of the water. Polly and Bella’s haunting vocals capture the emotion of the song so well, particularly on the soaring ending, and it really shows their talents in crafting such a timeless tune. Elsewhere on the record, breakup anthem No More Tears is packed with detail, whilst the calm, measured delivery gives the song a confidence and balance, and the atmospheric Golden Girl – based on the tale of a girl and her grieving mother during the 19th century Yorkshire Dales lead mining boom – is a storytelling masterclass. The song has the feel of a dark fairy tale, with utterly realistic characters and a strong narrative thread throughout, as well as some disturbing touches that add to the unsettling nature of the piece such as the slight shake in the vocals.
Many of the standout tracks for me were the instrumentals, such as the playful stomping Shuffle Set and Catharsis, which starts with Polly’s fast, delicate mandolin picking before moving into a pulsing drumbeat layered with Holly’s bright fiddle, whilst Sarah’s cello adds a sweeping background and dramatic finale. However the highlight of the record is Foss Island. Beginning with a traditional pipe melody, giving the song a sea shanty vibe before the mandolin comes in, you truly feel carried away to a wild place. The bright, cheerful melody and unexpected switches in tempo show that the band is in complete control of their delivery and is very cleverly done, taking the listener on an emotional journey with them.
The album closes with Balls To The Wall, another original which – as the title suggests – brings plenty of punch and swagger mixed with a delicate mandolin twang, before breaking into a stomping, clapping rhythm and adding a mystical feel with bouzouki midway through. It finishes the album on an incredibly powerful note and for me really sums up the band’s ability to hold their audience’s interest and their skill in creating something totally unique, yet that fits right into the UK folk landscape in 2020.
Overall, on Tidings The Magpies have shown why they’re one of the most exciting new folk bands around. They’ve created a timeless record which not only showcases their incredible musical and songwriting talents, but also feels fresh and modern in its sensibilities. I think they’re definitely going to be ones to watch in the future (and would imagine they put on an incredible live show), and personally I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Track listing: 1. Two Magicians 2. Catharsis 3. Run River Run 4. Rock Of Ages 5. Foss Island 6. No More Tears 7. Shuffle Set 8. Galway Shawl 9. Golden Girl 10. Balls To The Wall Record label: Magpies Music Ltd Release date: 5th June 2020