The Magpies – Undertow (2022)
After reviewing The Magpies‘ debut album, Tidings, back in 2020, it’s no exaggeration to say I was stunned by the variety of musical styles and virtuosity of the performances delivered by that quartet. However, the last two years have seen significant changes to the make-up of the band, and I confess to a certain trepidation before listening to Undertow for the first time. Could the current line-up, now a trio, produce music that would evoke the same response? Rest easy and read on; Undertow is, in every respect, a fitting continuation.
Bella Gaffney and Holly Brandon remain from the 2020 quartet. They’ve been joined by Kate Griffin, a clawhammer banjo player I first came across last year when reviewing and becoming thoroughly enthused by the album Reclaim from Mishra. Names, however, don’t tell the whole story; the array of instruments and voices now available to The Magpies gives a more complete view. For Bella, whilst guitar remains her principal instrument, she plays the double bass on all but one of the eleven tracks and adds banjo to a couple. For new recruit Kate, the banjo is her principal instrument along with dobro, and she takes over guitar from Bella on two tracks. As with the 2020 album, Holly’s fiddle is a major component throughout and while Bella and Kate tend to share the lead vocals, all three voices contribute to backing vocals, posting some delightful harmonies.
The eleven tracks are split into nine songs and two tunes; five of the songs were written by band members, three are traditional, and there’s one slightly surprising cover. Each of the three traditional songs has a different provenance, a clear statement the mixing of influences that was such a strength of the previous album is still at the core of The Magpies’ music. Fall on my Knees is classic Appalachian old time, Hares on the Mountain, a song collected in many places across England, is also to be found in Ireland and America while I Never Will Marry is recognisably Irish, here given a plot twist, thanks to additional lyrics from Kate. Naturally, the desire to mix and blend influences permeates the band’s own compositions, further adding to the fascination of all the pieces.
The album opens with one of Kate’s compositions, Now and Then, a song about the push and pull of relationships, with an arrangement to match the theme. Dominated by banjo and fiddle, it punctuates rapid sections with slower sequences that bring Kate’s vocals to the fore, while the occasional full stop adds further emphasis to the lyrics. A track gaining impact from such pace changes might benefit from some percussion, and The Magpies don’t miss the trick, with hand percussion credited to Ben and Thomas Webster but giving no further information. Stand up Ben and Thomas, you do a great job on this track. Kate takes solo writing credit on one other track, If Time Were Money, a much gentler song on which she again takes lead vocal with the other two voices backing and harmonising to produce a dreamscape of a song. Kate’s use of a fretless banjo also contributes to the song’s restrained nature and lets Holly’s fiddle lead the accompaniment.
Bella has also written, and takes lead vocal, on two songs. The first, Undertow, is a deceptively gentle song given The Magpies’ trademark transatlantic feel through the combination of banjo and dobro. The lyrics, though, deal with the far from gentle consequences of drug addiction. Giving voice to a woman exploited by her dealer, the song leaves an unsettling earworm with its oft repeated line, “I can feel the undertow, this body’s not my own”.
Bella’s other song Galileo, may, from its title, seem to have less current relevance. But as a tale of perseverance and determination not to give up the fight when faced with institutionalised stupidity, it could well have a lesson or two for us. Whilst not overtly crusading, there is nonetheless a thread running through the album suggesting The Magpies, collectively, have a more than a passing interest in addressing society’s ills from a feminist perspective. A conclusion to I Never Will Marry that sees the woman following her drowned lover into the waves was never going to sit well with them. So Kate’s additional lines have a second woman guiding her out of the sea, saying her lover will live on in her heart.
The album’s instrumentals have all been written by Holly. Solstice is a relatively short piece with a skippy pace evoking the joy of an early walk on solstice morning. Led by Holly’s fiddle, the banjo part is relatively subdued, while Bella’s plucked double bass adds a satisfying depth to the arrangement. The second instrumental is a three-tune set, Colin’s, The Mariner, and Tiredness Kills. Initially, both fiddle and banjo take the tune backed by guitar and double bass from Bella, the pace steadily increasing as the set progresses, ending with the very lively Tiredness Kills. Whilst Bella’s role throughout the album is primarily instrumental, she takes the lead share in the writing credit for Pass Me By, possibly the most laid-back song on the album and notable for some delightful interplay between fiddle and dobro.
The Magpies don’t seem averse to the transatlantic folk label that is often applied to their music, and no doubt that’s justified given their well-established use of banjo and now dobro. But their vocals give a different impression; even with a traditional North American song such as Fall on my Knees, you’re more likely to hear echoes of an accent that’s Yorkshire rather than Virginia. I’d say The Magpies are ploughing their own furrow, taking inspiration from whatever sources they come across, weaving them into songs and tunes that are indisputably their own. I haven’t forgotten about the “slightly surprising” cover mentioned earlier; it’s the album’s final track. Take The Eurythmics’ song, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), replace the background synthesizer with fiddle and double bass, the lead synth with banjo, and you’re getting close to what The Magpies have produced. Then add all three voices to deliver the lyrics, and you have a surprising but thoroughly enjoyable closing track. It would seem The Magpies can successfully apply their unique polish to pretty much anything.