Tuesday, 14 February 2012

CD Review: 'The Fragile'

It’s become almost customary, when discussing O’Hooley and Tidow’s albums, for reviewers to mention Belinda O’Hooley’s previous work with The Unthanks. But that’s understandable, because not only did Belinda’s piano style contribute a great deal to the sound and mood of the award-winning ‘The Bairns’, but her later work with Heidi Tidow is fully worthy to stand beside The Unthanks’ refreshing brand of English folk music. O’Hooley and Tidow are less traditional than the other group, though, and both this and their first album ‘Silent June’ consist almost entirely of memorable, self-penned songs – each album paying homage to its roots with a beautiful, lone and melancholic song by Ms or Mr Trad.

On the whole a jauntier album than its predecessor, ‘The Fragile’ shares with it an underlying sense of melancholy and tenderness, and a preoccupation with ‘outsiders’ and with people and animals who are so often ignored, unseen or victims of prejudice in our (it seems to me) increasingly cold and pitiless society. The tender compassion that permeates the album is far from hidden by the singalong tunes of some of its songs; ‘The Last Polar Bear’, which was a recent online Christmas single, has a tune that lodges itself in your head, until it’s immediately replaced by the irrepressibly catchy ‘Gentleman Jack’, about a 19th Century gentlewoman whose serial seductions enraged countless boyfriends and husbands. Throughout these songs the arrangements are sparse but subtle and at times punchy, driven along by O’Hooley’s piano while their voices float above. None more so than ‘Little Boy Blue’, which creates some haunting sounds with no more than a prepared piano and the duo’s exquisite voices. ‘Teardrop’, meanwhile, showcases acappella harmonies that rival The Unthanks and once again reveal O’Hooley and Tidow’s traditional roots.

Elderly people feature twice on this album. I remember Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South lamenting the ageism of pop music’s usual subject matter, and the two on here are both beautiful and subtle tributes to another of society’s almost invisible groups of human beings. ‘A Daytrip’ is a jaunty but touching song about Vera and Albert’s trip to the seaside, while ‘Mein Deern’ (my personal favourite; it has a truly gorgeous melody) immortalises the last words to Heidi Tidow of her German grandmother. ‘She Lived Beside the Anner’ is a haunting rendition of a traditional song, and prefaces the album’s quiet climax, ‘Ronnie’s Song’, about an aging, homeless homosexual man, who was taken under the wing of an actress at a Huddersfield theatre. Her attitude – “a person is a person; it makes no odds to me”, becomes the refrain of the song, and when the words are taken up by the London Diversity Choir at the end it takes on a wonderful, universal quality, without ever becoming embarrassingly overblown. The refrain has been in my head many times since, and for me it feels like an anthem to all victims of prejudice, for whatever reason, everywhere.

After this ‘big’, yet always understated song, the album closes with a brief but touching tribute to a much-loved cat (animals and the environment being another ‘fragile’ theme). There’s a subtlety, softness and humour about O’Hooley and Tidow’s music which (together with the catchy tunes) allows the listener to be completely free of any sense that they’re being hit over the head with a political hammer. And yet, Belinda and Heidi’s political sympathies are at times devastatingly clear, and nowhere more so than in the opening song, ‘The Tallest Tree’, where a robin looks down on the world it sees below:

The second night her sleep disturbed by visions of a street

Where crows in pinstriped uniform gather to repeat

The systematic ruin of the commoner’s nest egg

To feast upon their bonuses, then freely fly onwards

With its witty, touching lyrics, stick-in-your-brain tunes, gorgeous singing and wonderfully subtle arrangements, ‘The Fragile’ deserves to win not only folk awards but the Mercury Music Prize as well. It’s garnered many excellent reviews, and fully deserves them. Let’s hope that like The Unthanks, who have to some extent transcended their folk / roots classification, it’s not only in the folk world that O’Hooley and Tidow become popular.

'The Fragile' is available from http://ohooleyandtidow.com/

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