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Melrose Quartet, Make The World Anew – a review

Rachel Wilkinson digs into the latest Melrose exploration, finding an album of traditional songs, tunes, originals and sacred cows.

Release Date
22 September 2023
Melrose Quartet, Make The Word Anew
Melrose Quartet's "Make The World Anew" combines Sheffield’s folk powerhouses: Kerr, Fagan, and the Arrowsmiths. The album offers a blend of traditional and modern folk, each song chosen with personal connection. Diverse vocals and compositions deliver uplifting, catchy tracks, celebrating folk's enduring spirit.

It’s been a hot minute since Melrose Quartet treated us to a new record, but they popped into the studio in March and in my hands, I’m holding the outcome: Make The World Anew. Was it worth waiting for? I reckon so.

In case you don’t know them yet, Melrose Quartet combine two of Sheffield’s folk power couples: Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. This new album sees them offer a whole pick ‘n’ mix of positivity, with traditional songs and tunes rubbing shoulders with more recent additions to the folk canon. It’s obvious from the sleeve notes that everything on here has been chosen because one or more of the band feel a real connection to the music and where it came from, or because it’s something that’s simply too joyful not to record. If you’ve heard their previous albums, I can confirm that the rumours are true: this is the quartet’s most uplifting offering to date (though I admit it is in tight competition with The Rudolph Variations).

If, like me, you want something that you can sing along to coming out of your speakers then this release will give you plenty to get your vocal chords around. Having said that, Melrose Quartet albums have traditionally been mixtapes of song and instrumental tracks, and this one is no different, finding just the right balance between words and music. It doesn’t feel formulaic though – with each band member taking the vocal lead at some point, and Jess Arrowsmith, Kerr and Fagan taking on some of the compositional heavy lifting, there are some real gems. When you’ve got a band of players who can sing, singers who can write, and writers who can play, there’s no excuse for unoriginality, after all. 

Make The World Anew is one of those albums where everyone should be able to find something to tickle their fancy, and even if you don’t, you’re guaranteed be living with catchy earworms for days. The title track, Jess Arrowsmith’s ode to arts organisers everywhere, is a cheeky fusion of new words with a trad tune. And not just any trad tune, either. We’re talking Playford here. It’s a lovely nod to everyone behind the scenes who facilitates so much of the treasured, folk-community spirit. (And we don’t get that many songs written for us!)

In the ‘Hedging Song’, which is also a mashup (albeit a pre-existing combination) of a Frank Mansell poem and an eighteenth-century tune, Richard Arrowsmith’s delivery is assured and really rather charming. It may have waned somewhat since the mid-pandemic resurgence, but who hasn’t toyed with the idea of giving up the indoor 9-5 in exchange for a spot of hard graft in the drizzle?

…like a musical patchwork quilt, joining together artists from across the generations.

Then there’s ‘Nancy and Mary’ – the perfect pairing of ‘Nancy Clough’, a tune written by the “Prince of Pipers” Tom Clough, and Stan Roger’s 1979 song ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ – which includes a sprightly fiddle duet (duel, almost?), and the evergreen inspirational message to carry on despite adversity. It might have originally referred to the challenge of raising a fictional sunken ship, but there’s something about the “smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go” that does touch a nerve in our current political climate… 

Melrose Quartet have a lot of vocal and instrumental power in their armoury, and when they give it everything, it’s wholesome and immersive and joyful. However, my personal favourite tracks on the album are actually the two unaccompanied traditional songs, ‘Just As The Tide Was Flowing’ [Roud 1105] and the ‘Monmouth Wassail’. Fagan takes the lead on both and delivers them with simplicity and clarity, with the storytelling in ‘Just As The Tide’ being particularly compelling. He’s surrounded by the other voices in a beautiful close-harmony sandwich, and as a sucker for chordal resolution, I admit that the little suspension and release at the end of both tracks gives me an unreasonable amount of pleasure. 

Then there’s the small matter of covering a much-loved classic. I think we all have a song or two that we think already exist in their most perfect form, and for some people, Lal and Mike Waterson’s ‘The Scarecrow’ might be that song. Someone I know described it as “magical and eternal”, offering it up as a kind of folk sacred cow. Deserved praise, no doubt. But look, I’ll come clean: I’d never heard it until it arrived on this disc, so the haunting and heart-breaking, folk-horror-esque rendition here (inspired not by the recording on Bright Phoebus, but by an earlier demo sung by Lal Waterson) is my personal starting point. Would I have now heard not one, but four versions if Melrose Quartet hadn’t selected it from the cupboard and given it their own treatment? Possibly not. As the man himself, Martin Carthy, has been known to say (I’ll paraphrase…), the worst thing you can do to music is to not sing or play it, and in the aural tradition, reinvention and reimagination surely goes with the territory? Personally, I think we’re all entitled to a favourite version of something, but what should always be celebrated is great songs not getting left behind. 

Make The World Anew is like a musical patchwork quilt, joining together artists from across the generations. Some of the patches are made from old fabric, some new, some material has been borrowed from others, and some are new and old artfully stitched together. As winter arrives, wrap yourself up in it and enjoy the sound of four friends making the music that they really love. 

Make The World Anew is available now from Bandcamp. Shout out to my old neighbour Lizzie Doe for designing yet another beautiful album cover!