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The Furrow Collective stand on an inner-city street corner in the fading light.

The Furrow Collective, The Longest Night – a review

Short but very sweet, the Longest Night by The Furrow Collective gets you in a Christmas mood with a tidy collection of classics, new and old. Fire up the hearth and reach for the mulled wine.

The cover art for The Longest Night by The Furrow Collective.
Release Date
2 December 2022
The Furrow Collective, The Longest Night
Having spent two years away, The Furrow Collective returns with a tasty, fireside appetiser, the best of which ('The Wexford Lullaby') leaves you wanting a whole plateful more.

The Longest Night, the new and wintery EP from The Furrow Collective, arrives with a little backstory. Having been apart (for obvious reasons) for two years, the group consisting of Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alisdair Roberts reassembled for a residency at Halsway Manor, the National Centre for Folk Arts in November 2021. In a pre-Christmas mood, they began exploring the archives and “getting lost in the Quantock Hills”. Pleased with what they found and enthused by the chance to sing together again after such a long layoff, they summoned their producer, Andy Bell, and four songs were recorded. Initially gifted to Hudson Club members last Christmas, they decided to release them as an EP for all and sundry.

And so here we are, all awaiting the musical equivalent of some figgy pudding, although figgy pudding, you’ll quickly realise, is not on the menu. This is not one of your jolly, tub-thumping, prancing and stumbling Christmas records. This is a more peaceful, warm-your-cockles-by-the-fireside collection, produced with relatively stark instrumentation, playing to the strengths of the collective’s vocal interactions.

The first track is an obvious one, given the backstory – and who can blame them? Can there be a more beloved modern winter song among the folk community than ‘The Halsway Carol’? Written by Nigel Eaton and Ian Frisk as recently as 2011, the song has been covered hundreds of times already, beloved for its enchanting melody (it started life as a hurdy-gurdy instrumental called ‘The Halsway Schottische’) and its secular lyrics, delighting in the turning of the year. Google the song and you’re most likely to come across Jackie Oates’s definitive version, a merry performance driven by a young and rambunctious Nick Hart on English concertina. By contrast, the Furrow Collective warm to the twinkling stillness of a winter scene. Lucy Farrell’s vocal dances on Emily Portman’s expansive Wurlitzer and Alasdair Roberts’ electric guitar lines, painting images of moonlight on snowfall. It’s a beguiling performance and one that gets to the emotional heart of this gorgeous song.

‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ [Roud 453] has found its way back into numerous repertoires over recent years. Lisa Knapp recorded an extraordinary version in 2021, and Martin Simpson has been touring his take on the song thoroughly over the last 12 months. However, whereas the Knapp and Simpson performances share the same tune, this version – with Roberts on lead vocals – lands on something different entirely. Learnt from a recording John Partridge of Cinderford, Gloucestershire, 1952, it suits the naïf innocence of Roberts’ voice – an effect emphasised by an arrangement of gently plucked guitar and banjo, eventually giving way to a classic Furrows four-part harmony.

As we progress, Rachel Newton steps up to sing Maddy Taylor’s ‘The Lambskin Carol’, another modern song that plays that clever trick of making you reach for your Roud Index only to find that it’s a recent song, so convincing is the blur between traditional and original melody. It’s a gentle lullaby, perfect for Newton’s sheltering, protective vocals, supported beautifully by the ensemble’s vocal harmonies, Portman’s banjo and the singer’s harp.

Last up is Emily Portman, taking lead on ‘The Wexford Lullaby’ (lyrics by John Renbourn, set to a melody for ‘The Wexford Carol’ [Roud 22086]). Beginning with entrancing vocal harmonies that hark back to the band’s roots as the Emily Portman Trio and the Coracle Band, this recording underlines the singer’s amazing ear for an uncanny, bewitching melody – one of those tunes that hints at something slightly more sinister than at first meets the ear. As such, it contrasts with the somnolent sweetness of the first three songs, altering the mood in an intriguing way as things come, prematurely, to a halt.

The Longest Night is one of those EPs that invites you into its world and then comes to an abrupt end just as you’re getting comfortable. That the quartet has been out on a Christmas tour this month suggests that they may have more gifts beneath their collective tree. Fingers crossed for more of the same this time next year.

Order the Longest Night now from The Furrow Collective’s Bandcamp page.