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Saul Rose, Eliza Carthy and Dave Delarre sit in a semi-circular brick structure, each facing the camera.
Eliza Carthy Trio. Photo credit: Thom Ashworth

Eliza Carthy Trio, Conversations We’ve Had Before – a review

The Eliza Carthy Trio releases the singer's most consistent, rewarding album in years. Instantly arresting, Conversations We've Had Before is Carthy at her very best.

Release Date
3 July 2023
Eliza Carthy Trio, Conversations We've Had Before
Talk about a return to form, this is the best album Eliza Carthy has put together in years, possibly even a decade. In tandem with Saul Rose and David Delarre, with whom she shares an almost supernatural chemistry, the musician has recorded the kind of album you show to people who dismiss English folk music at their peril, demonstrating its highs, its lows, and its ability to take both your breath and your heart the second you let your guard down.

If I were Topic Records, I’d be kicking myself. Eliza Carthy, arguably the doyenne of the label, has made her best album in years… and they (or any other record label, for that matter) are nowhere near it. It’s a perplexing situation, and one that we’ll come on to in a few paragraphs’ time, once we’ve dealt with that key point (and here it is again, in case you glossed over it): Eliza Carthy has made her best album in years.

Looking back over her career, two things are pretty obvious. Despite being known primarily for her traditional folk connections, either as the daughter of folk legends or as the English folk scene’s flagbearer for several decades, Eliza Carthy has never been all that comfortable being pigeonholed. She doesn’t like to do what is expected of her and so she’s constantly shape-shifting, looking for an alternative way to present herself. Secondly, she likes to be part of a gang. You’ll rarely see ‘Eliza Carthy’ written alone in lights, it’s Eliza Carthy & the Restitution, Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band, Eliza Carthy & the Gift Band, or, more recently, the Eliza Carthy Trio. All well and good, and you’ll be watching a really strong performance whichever you end up seeing, but from an audience perspective it can get a tad confusing. Which version are we getting today? What’s the difference between this one and that one? Does this mean I’m only going to hear songs from the album she made with this particular lineup?

You can see why she does it. As an artist, it gives her options – colours on a palette to play around with; other musicians to interact with and bounce ideas off. As an audience, you’ll get a powerhouse performance no matter who she turns up with. After all, Eliza Carthy doesn’t do half-measures. She’s a whirling dervish. She takes no prisoners. When she’s on form, nobody does this folk thing as well as she does.

Truth be told, when I go to an Eliza gig, it’s that central energy I want to see and hear the most. She rarely takes the stage without a band of astounding musicians, but I sometimes fear that what makes her special gets lost in the sheer scale of it all. I realised this most recently at the Concert for Paul, held in Hampshire last October. Granted, she was in mourning for both her mother and her close friend so her unguarded emotions were poured into her performance, but the rawness of sound was breathtaking. The driving rhythm of the fiddle surging through the hall, that singular voice unrestrained; the eyeball-to-eyeball, in-the-moment collaboration with Saul Rose and Tim Van Eyken. I remember thinking at the time, if only she would capture this on record… what a record that would be.

On occasion, of course, she has managed it. I find her stripped-back recordings so full of life, so vital. Go and listen to ‘Mons Meg’ (from Rice, 1998), ‘Cold, Wet & Rainy Night/ The Grand Hornpipe’ (Heat, Light & Sound, 1996), or anything off The Moral of the Elephant album (made in 2014 with her father). I get that minimalism it’s a taste thing, but I defy anyone not to get caught up and carried away by the sheer beauty of the unaccompanied opening verse of ‘Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ (from the aforementioned 2014 album). Some performers just know how to do more with less.

So you can see why the notion of Conversations We’ve Had Before might have raised my pulse ever so slightly. Granted, it’s not a pure Eliza Carthy album, but if you were going to send her into the studio with the bare minimum of musicians, who would you choose? Saul Rose, undoubtedly. Theirs is a rare symbiosis and no mistake. When it comes to great partnerships in folk music, you’d have to put Eliza and Saul up there alongside Bert and John, John Martyn and Danny Thompson, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. It’s as much alchemy as it is telepathy. David Delarre, too. Not only is he an incredibly sympathetic musical lieutenant, he’s also one of the most gifted, undersung guitarists of his generation. Carthy relies on his stability completely, and he has developed an intuitive relationship with Rose that seems as strong as anything the melodeon virtuoso ever put together with Benji Kirkpatrick in Faustus. On paper, we’re dealing with a crack commando unit. So, how does it sound on record?

This feels like a case of Eliza saying, “You think you know that tune? Hold my beer…”

The simple answer is that it’s all you might have hoped for. ‘The Knife in the Window’ [Roud 32572] boots things into action, the fiddle grinding away as though Carthy is determined to dig through to Australia by morning. It’s full of the kind of drama and dynamism that you get with such a tight little unit, road-tuned and recorded in unison, each given the space to find full voice. It’s also a relatively untouched song in the cannon – only 10-or-so recordings of it have been made since its collection from Harry Cox in 1953 – so it’s another fine example of Eliza digging into the archives and dusting off an overlooked classic. That she sings it to the tune of ‘Hares on the Mountain’ is also interesting. The latter has turned up again and again during the latest folk revival as young singers discover the work Shirley Collins has done with it (Collins even re-recorded it herself this year), but this feels like a case of Eliza saying, “You think you know that tune? Hold my beer…”

There’s no let-up of that raw, folksome energy on the following track, ‘Avington Pond/ Mrs Casey’; the first a song collected in Itchen Abbas [Roud 1654], not far from Paul Sartin’s old stomping ground, and the second a joyous morris tune, strikingly similar to the German Christmas carol (and deathless Mike Oldfield hit) ‘Il Dulci Jubilo’. Again, it’s an irresistible recording, everyone playing to their strengths and Carthy in superb voice. I, for one, can’t resist a good morris tune, and ‘Mrs Casey’ finds the trio nailing it down once and for all. The production (Ben Seal) is spot on – tight, close-mic-ed, minimal and full of the natural power of these acoustic instruments played so very well.

‘The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green’ [Roud 132] opens with a great example of why I believe David Delarre to be deserving of more praise. Maybe he gets overlooked because he’s so often part of a large band, blending all too easily into the background. Not here, though. The intro is delicate, fluid, rich in tone; his interplay with the rest of the band supportive and intuitive – flecks of gold that flash across an otherwise dark canvas. It took me several listens to even notice the rest of the song, so drawn was I to what Dave was up to. But it’s a grand song, one that the guitarist pulled together from Essex and London broadsides found in the Bodleian library, and one that suits the grandiose nature of Carthy’s latter-day singing voice. She fair belts this one out; a kind of controlled explosion. And for anyone who digs the warts-and-all approach, Saul Rose’s melodeon is recorded so closely that you can hear the pop of his buttons and valves. Man, I love that stuff.

By this point, you come to realise that Conversations We’ve Had Before really is the gift that keeps on giving. ‘Pecket’s Black Mary/ Love Lane’, is one of those tune sets that you play to people who aren’t sure if they like folk music or not. Put it on, turn it up and watch their reaction. If it leaves them cold, just walk away. They clearly don’t know what’s good for them. That almost supernatural symbiosis has rarely shown up on record as well as it does here. The fiddle and the melodeon are two living beasts locked around each other, both ready to go for the jugular when the slightest opportunity presents itself. Put simply, it fucking bangs. Again, you wonder if Eliza might have something to prove. Certainly, if I were a director involved in something like The Change, The Gallows Pole or anything else that taps into this new folk revival, I’d be queuing up at her door, trying to get some of this into my soundtrack. Likewise, if I were a festival organiser, I’d be pretty chuffed knowing I had the Eliza Carthy Trio on my bill and that they had ‘Pecket’s Black Mary’ up their sleeve. (In which case, well done to Sidmouth, Bromyard and Ely.)

Taken from Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (Thomas Percy, 1765), ‘The Spanish Lady’s Love’ [Roud 9375] boasts a particularly affecting vocal from the celebrated singer, able to get inside the poignance of the tale and do it gentle justice, along with Delarre at his most Nic Jones-y on the accompanying ‘Planxty Charles Coote’. It’s a brief respite before the boisterousness returns. Tongue in cheek, Carthy describes ‘Away My Brave Boys’ [V7893] as “a nice bit of jingoism”, and it opens with a stately instrumental before giving way to a three-part harmony that entreats the listener to “undaunted, unconquer’d, look death in the face”. Rather than a battlefield cry, it comes across as something suited to the stage, unsurprising given that it was performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden as “a musical interlude” sometime in the early 1700s. It’s one of those strident songs that Carthy does so well; file it alongside ‘Gallant Hussar’ for reference.

Staying with a thespian theme, one gets the sense that ‘The Message’ (a John Donne poem set to music) benefits from the combined years this trio has spent in the theatre. Both Rose and Delarre have been known to tread the boards, while Carthy herself has composed for The Globe and Hull Truck. That’s not to suggest it’s a big West End throwdown with jazz hands and polished teeth glinting in the spotlight; quite the opposite. It drips with wretched emotion, drama and atmosphere and finds Eliza at her most longing and, by turns, vengeful. There’s something gritty and avenging about the follow-up tune set, too (‘Sword Dance/Cheshire Rolling Hornpipe’), especially once the trio kicks in at around the 3-min mark and things start to get intense. It’s the musical equivalent of being cornered and told you’re not leaving until they’ve learnt all your secrets. And, you know what? If they promise to keep this up, that’s fine with me. I ain’t talking.

‘Go From My Window’ [Roud 966] is perhaps the lightest touch on the album, but the trio come at it with as much imagination as a song this slight can muster, making use of backing vocals that put me in mind of Carthy’s brilliant ‘Little Big Man’ (Neptune, 2011). It’s a fleeting piece that quickly gives way to the rollicking ‘Whitefriars Hornpipe’, a belting, breathless performance, and the kind of thing most folk outfits would shed limbs to call their own rather than bury deep into the second half of the record. Similarly telling is the fact that the subsequent track, ‘Golden Slumbers’ [Roud V18438], is a surprising choice for the album’s pre-release. It suits its position on the tracklisting – a heartfelt sigh following the exertions of the previous hornpipe – and it’s a beautiful performance, but there are a handful of more striking recordings here that would serve as more convincing calling cards. As starting points go, it’s very generous. If you liked it, you’ll be delighted to hear that it’s pretty much all gold from here on in.

The album finishes up with a pair of intriguing songs, the first a version of the classic sex metaphor ‘Bird in the Bush’ [Roud 290], learnt from a Frankie Armstrong record. Given a production treatment that seems to belong to a slightly different audio-universe to the rest of the album, it is resplendent with burbling string overdubs* and a choir of Elizas, Roses and Delarres. No bad thing at all – it’s a compelling recording that draws you in for repeated listens, rewarding the time you spend with it. The closing song, however, is a real find. ‘The Light of Other Days’ is, writes Carthy in the sleevenotes, “a broadside ballad I came across when making a radio programme for the BBC at Chetham’s Library. I’ve never encountered writing or traditional music that deals with the issue of depression before, and this seems to express it perfectly.” The song also appears in The Maid of Artois, an opera by Michael William Balfe and Alfred Bunn (the manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1836, and may have influenced the broadside (or vice versa). Either way, in the hands of the Eliza Carthy Trio, it becomes a powerful torch song with a melody that highlights the power of the singer’s voice, exposes her soul completely and aches for happier times. What more can you ask for from an artist you love?

So, why is this album – a veritable career highlight – being snuck out on Bandcamp without any backing whatsoever? Well, it seems that these are tough times and there just isn’t the money to make anything bigger happen. Fans can have it as a digital download… and that’s yer lot. All of which means that it’s unlikely to be heard by any sizeable audience – a crying shame, to put it mildly. It’s the Spotify paradox in microcosm. A superb album not getting its full dues and a limited audience because the very platform that claims it can offer the widest audience won’t pay enough for that to be viable.

There are no two ways about it: Conversations We’ve Had Before is the best album I’ve heard from Eliza Carthy in a decade or so, and the best traditional folk album I’ve heard from anyone so far this year. The trio lineup allows her the space to do what she does best, whether that’s kicking the arse off a set of traditional tunes, helping her to clamber into the archive and breath new life into relatively unknown gems, or bringing the house down on some imaginary West End stage. The campaign for a more formal release starts here.

Conversations We’ve Had Before is out on July 3rd and can be ordered from Eliza Carthy’s Bandcamp page.

* I have since been gently informed that no string overdubs appear on this album. Repeat: no strings were harmed in the making of this album.