As a fan of ballad singers in the English folk tradition, I (as I suspect you, the reader, may do also) spend a lot of time listening to not overly dissimilar songs sung in a not overly dissimilar way. It’s partly why we love it, but it’s also why some don’t. Those that are able to reinterpret common songs in a seemingly authentic yet fresh way are always onto a winner, and Marlais has done just that with Stream of Forms.
Allow me to explain.
Old folk songs are reinterpreted in surprising styles all the time. Boyzone did it, The Imagined Village were particularly noted for doing it, and Lankum keeps on doing it. These are all fine examples of reinterpretation (subjectively), mainly because they go beyond simply busking the song – they dig deeper and draw out its essence before recontextualising it. It’s a difficult task at the best of times but, in my opinion, a truly rewarding one. The new album, Stream of Forms, by Marlais is a great example of this, and one of the most refreshing albums I’ve heard this year.
Be sure to listen carefully to ‘Bird in the Bush’ (a.k.a. ‘Three Maids A-Milking’; Roud 290). Accompanied by polyphonic staccato strings and droning organ, Marlais builds both the tension and the lamentation that the tune requires. One can hear inspiration from Cosmo Sheldrake’s use of organic sounds, processed by digital means. By enhancing these hand-made sounds through machinery, Marlais is able to build a fresh new world in which to inhabit this song. The instrumentation of ‘Blackwater Side’ [Roud 312], especially the rhythmic textures that slowly layer and build, works especially well with the more traditional doubling of the vocal melody with a fiddle. Having spent five years working on this album while in residency in Tusheti, Georgia, Marlais has created a collection that has clearly been a labour of love, each song practiced over time, mulled over, contemplated for its meaning and intention before finally edging towards its current presentation.
The vocal performance is reminiscent of Sam Lee and this album is highly recommended for fans of his work. Take, for instance, ‘Meeting Is A Pleasure’ [Roud 454], where the singing is all-encompassing and yet, based around a simple melody, the intention of the song is brought forth. A similar approach is taken with ‘The Small Birds Whistle’ (a.k.a. ‘Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime’; Roud 2) which could almost be acapella with its tension-filled delivery and little else.
One gets the sense that the interpretation of these songs was mulled over with great care and sensitivity, taking into account the very human emotions present in the original texts. Marlais seeks a more visceral connection with the emotions brought on by these songs. By using simple yet acoustically-rich instrumentation, the singing of Michael Culme-Seymour is simultaneously easy to follow and yet pulls the listener in with each emotional sentence. These songs are not dressed up in any sense of the term; the signing is plain and avoids the distraction of unnecessary embellishment. Instead, the lyrical content speaks out across the textual landscape created through looped flutes, choirs and syncopated electronics.
Stream Of Forms is one of those albums that may perhaps seem to get lost in the background of life at first, but will quickly invite the listener to stop whatever it is they are doing and listen, breathe slowly and take in the meaning and the emotion of these songs. Not all singers have that effect but Marlais has confidently achieved it here.
Stream of Forms by Marlais comes out on October 14th via Bandcamp. It is available as a digital download and a limited-edition cassette.