This album is beautiful. I’ve struggled to write about it because, for a while, every time I played it, it made me cry. There is obviously nothing wrong with emotion. Goodness knows we’ve all had a fair amount of it recently, both in and out of the folk world, but it’s a long time since I heard something that gave me so many ‘feels’. Can confirm, though, that having to stop for a bit of a weep does slow down the writing process.
The passing of time, for good and bad, hangs over these songs like some kind of intangible spectre. Perhaps it was subliminal messaging – the album’s title, taken from the final track, ‘Meeting Point’, personifies time as a character in its own right. Part of my reviewing procrastination was connected to how very aware of time I’ve been feeling, and whether, or how, to write about how that affected me as a listener. But it feels disingenuous not to mention it. None of us, not even Tradfolk reviewers, listen to music in a vacuum, removed from other elements of our lives, and I definitely first heard this album at a time when I didn’t know how much I needed its simple yet ethereal beauty. So it got me, right there, every time.
Emily Portman and Rob Harbron are both stalwarts of the English trad folk scene in their own rights. Probably best known for their work with The Furrow Collective and Leveret respectively, you’d struggle to find a more understatedly talented duo, fielding seven instruments between them for this recording. I was almost surprised to check the notes and find they’d brought in Pete Judge on flugelhorn, because either one of them could be hiding some surprising brass talent beneath their multi-instrumental bushels.
Time Was Away packs plenty into its 10 tracks and scores 80% on the Roud Scale, with eight interpretations of traditional songs, alongside two really lovely settings of non-trad words. Every one is a feat of storytelling – Emily’s clear voice and, frankly, enviable diction leaves no room for misheard words – the tales of these believably flawed characters are laid bare, supported by carefully constructed, and never overpowering, accompaniments from both musicians. They’re both incredibly talented players, and perhaps one of the great strengths of Time Was Away is that there’s not one moment of ‘show’ from either of them.
I’m not going to list every track – every song features something within the interpretation that makes you put your head slightly on one side and go ‘hmmmhh’. The sleeve notes are also really well written, Roud numbers and all, and I’d like to avoid regurgitating those (except once, and them I’m going to go all in and do it verbatim). I do have some special mentions though.
‘The Healths’ [Roud 17156] is one of those wonderful traditional songs that, as you can see, comes a long way down Steve Roud’s list, and hasn’t appeared on other albums of this ilk. It’s not going to make it into Sing Yonder until Volume 1715. It’s full of wonderful imagery – I was particularly taken by the idea of the “ring the earth runs round on” – and, having been without a melody for the middle part of its life, has been suitably updated thanks to Rob’s usual exquisite tune-writing.
I heard Emily sing ‘Oh to be Alone’ in a singaround last summer, and it stuck with me – I love that they’ve included it here. She’s a powerful storyteller, and, with concertina in hands, held the entire room in rapt attention for four minutes. With a melody by folk-feminist powerhouse, Sandra Kerr, setting a poem by an unknown suffragette, its words carry no less relevance in 2022 about the lack of equilibrium between the sexes.
I’ve mentioned it already, but ‘Meeting Point’ waits until the end of the album, then just understatedly does its thing. It’s a setting by Tim Dalling of the poem ’Meeting Point’, written on the eve of war in 1939 by Louis MacNiece. The simplicity of the piano line, following the vocals, underscored with concertina chords, and the flugelhorn adding that dreamy nostalgia of brass bands and charabancs and other 1930s accoutraments? Chef’s Kiss Emoji, as the kids say. And as Emily and Rob say, “The song conjures for us those liminal moments when a good tune or story transports both musician and listener to a place where time stands still.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
With their pared-back arrangements, Emily and Rob have allowed each set of words, and the human stories woven through them, to take top billing. That might seem like a strange observation for an album of songs – “of course the words are important Rachel, they’re songs!” – but hopefully, if you listen, you’ll see what I mean. And this is an album that deserves your listening attention. You could take a misty autumnal walk or a hot bath while it’s playing, but maybe don’t ask it to share its audience with much else.
Just give it time.
Time Was Away is released on 25 November and is available, in various formats, from Bandcamp. You can hear Emily and Rob discussing ‘Long A-Growing’/The Trees They Do Grow High with Jon Wilks in Episode Five of The Old Songs Podcast – Series 2.