(Navigator Records, 2009)
As one might expect from a musician who has spent the last three or four years reinventing the sound of English folk music as a member of Bellowhead, No Man's Fool is an album that further pushes at the boundaries of the folk genre. Rachael takes ten traditional songs and sets them in an aural landscape that flirts with the contemporary sounds of lounge-jazz and funk. Ultimately though, it is Rachael's exquisitely clear and unfussy voice that furnishes the album with an eternal charm; in fact, it would have been interesting to also hear the songs being performed a cappella, so as to appreciate their stark beauty before they don their new clothes. There is however a certain allure to hearing these songs of fair maidens and May mornings set amongst a thoroughly modern and inventive soundscape.
Right from the outset, "Captain Ward" benefits from a subdued bass and a piano that saunters along with a jazzy insouciance, with an accordion and fiddle providing an instrumental nod towards the more traditional sound that one might associate with this song. "My Johnny Was A Shoemaker" receives a groovy makeover thanks to some effortlessly cool keyboards, and a harmony-laden refrain that may well provide the most memorable pop hook that traditional music has ever heard!
"The Drowned Sailor" demonstrates undeniable class, with an understated performance where Rachael's cello sets a mournful tone alongside sensitive accompaniment that allows the full lustre of Rachael's gorgeous voice to dominate. "Miles Weatherhill" starts out as a tender recounting of a love story between a young weaver and a parson's servant, before said weaver embarks on a bloody killing spree, at which point the panoramic musical accompaniment reaches epic proportions to perfectly heighten the drama.
Rachael McShane is a classy musician and a singer of striking elegance on this confident début. The arrangements are often daring, though sometimes alarmingly smooth, but the quality of the traditional material, and the unpretentiousness of Rachael's voice shines bright throughout. This marriage of traditional spirit, jazzy improvisation, and urbane rhythms genuinely offers something different at a time where even the folk scene can offer increasingly bland and unimaginative alternatives. No Man's Fool surely marks the beginning of an altogether more interesting journey.
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