At this time of year, stripped-back folk seems the perfect soundtrack for all the skeletal trees, gardens wasted to faded yellows, the earnest sense of interlude that comes before the extravagance of snow.
Kevin Allan’s new project, Fair Mothers, fills the hole left in many sullen winter hearts with the debut album, Through Them Fingers Yours And Mine.
It’s a delicate collection of tunes which tap into folk conventions while dealing with universal subjects (love, time, death and mourning) through a more contemporary lyrical twist on the storytelling tradition.
Over half the record is graced with the supporting vocals of Kathryn Joseph, whose otherworldly croons weave easily as gossamer around Allan’s measured and smooth confessions.
Opening track ‘Blind’ showcases this successful duet, recounting the frustrations of an unhappy lover in a way that bleeds out like an old folk song while also cutting through the wistfulness with the blunt bitterness that often comes with a breakup: “I don’t know why I’m asking either / I don’t care about your fucking cats.”
The interplay between Allan and Joseph’s voices is a kind of dialogue between Allan’s consistently mournful tones and Joseph’s handling of both delicate pain and more piercing frustration; it works best when the vocals come together and meet in soaring moments of harmony.
Some of the songs begin with a clear image, which unravels through surreal and free associative lyrical wanderings.
‘Glitterball’ starts by deeming the world a glitter ball and then reflecting on its surrounding “void”, “a thing that’s made to last / like blades of grass / they’re burning green”; Allen and Joseph harmonise repeatedly on the word ‘green’ as a muted drumbeat steadily builds and fades.
There’s a childlike simplicity to this song, which observes beauties at the scale of the miniature and the imaginary planetary; Allen notes how the “window pane is making rainbows”, but also sings of the rising sun, the earth itself rotating as the great source of all this sparkle.
Thus despite the generally mournful tone of the album, there are often moments of this quiet, visionary joy; as on ‘Lake of Morning’ where the theme of spiritual renewal – “this ain’t no lark” – is offered softly at a comfortably rolling rhythm and Allan pulls out of a minor key to sing “I laughed so loud I’m gonna break my neck”.
‘Crazy Lamb’ is also lean on the production, but here the pale crackles of white noise add to the song’s delicacy, as its pastoral subject becomes a figure for both vulnerability and beauty – “they’ll turn your skin into a golden fleece” – picking up pace to deliver a final silvery harmony.
The minimalism of ‘What Have I Done’, its clean guitar and waltz-like rhythm, the doleful combination of male and female voices, is reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen.
Indeed, where Fair Mothers shine brightest is in the relation between subtle musical accompaniment and Allan’s often witty, often tragic poetic lyricism.
‘What Have I Done’ begins with the feel of a prayer (“I came to listen / you came to speak”) and transitions softly into a lament for despair, moving into the comparatively cheerful guitar twangs of ‘Disgrace’.
The most haunting track is ‘In Threes’, where heavy piano pedals accompany the lilting drift of Allan’s sparse and searching lyrics, his voice sliding between fragile heights and resonant depths as he recounts tales of loss and confusion, capturing both hope and sadness which crystallise in a centrepiece piano solo.
The album’s overall tone is cloaked in the melancholy of its minimalist folk, but there’s a mellow sense of rapture that glints in unexpected places like sunlight through a forest of stark winter trees.
It’s a humble debut, staying true to its roots while maintaining a sense of self-deprecation which allows for reflective lyrics tinged with the warmth of honesty and the icy admissions of reality: “cigarettes burn / but I don’t know why I smoke them”.
With squeaky clean guitars and the ethereal addition of Joseph’s vocals, Fair Mothers have made something beautiful and understated, closing appropriately on ‘Father Death Blues’ with a mournful, deep and all-encompassing drone.
Words: Maria Sledmere