Reviews of my solo album ‘No Man’s Fool’
Mike Wilson’s Music Blog – August ’09
As one might expect from a musician who has spent the last three or four years reinventing the sound of English folk music as a member of Bellowhead, No Man’s Fool is an album that further pushes at the boundaries of the folk genre. Rachael takes ten traditional songs and sets them in an aural landscape that flirts with the contemporary sounds of lounge-jazz and funk. Ultimately though, it is Rachael’s exquisitely clear and unfussy voice that furnishes the album with an eternal charm; in fact, it would have been interesting to also hear the songs being performed a cappella, so as to appreciate their stark beauty before they don their new clothes. There is however a certain allure to hearing these songs of fair maidens and May mornings set amongst a thoroughly modern and inventive soundscape.
Right from the outset, “Captain Ward” benefits from a subdued bass and a piano that saunters along with a jazzy insouciance, with an accordion and fiddle providing an instrumental nod towards the more traditional sound that one might associate with this song. “My Johnny Was A Shoemaker” receives a groovy makeover thanks to some effortlessly cool keyboards, and a harmony-laden refrain that may well provide the most memorable pop hook that traditional music has ever heard!
“The Drowned Sailor” demonstrates undeniable class, with an understated performance where Rachael’s cello sets a mournful tone alongside sensitive accompaniment that allows the full lustre of Rachael’s gorgeous voice to dominate. “Miles Weatherhill” starts out as a tender recounting of a love story between a young weaver and a parson’s servant, before said weaver embarks on a bloody killing spree, at which point the panoramic musical accompaniment reaches epic proportions to perfectly heighten the drama.
Rachael McShane is a classy musician and a singer of striking elegance on this confident début. The arrangements are often daring, though sometimes alarmingly smooth, but the quality of the traditional material, and the unpretentiousness of Rachael’s voice shines bright throughout. This marriage of traditional spirit, jazzy improvisation, and urbane rhythms genuinely offers something different at a time where even the folk scene can offer increasingly bland and unimaginative alternatives. No Man’s Fool surely marks the beginning of an altogether more interesting journey.
BBC music – august 09
BBC Review – Sid Smith
“A special solo effort from the Bellowhead vocalist and cellist”
Stepping out from the raucous crowd that is the 11-piece folk ensemble Bellowhead could be viewed as something of a risk for vocalist, cellist and fiddler Rachael McShane – it’s one thing to be carousing in a chorus, but quite another to hold the stage all on your own.
Happily, as with fellow Bellowhead member Jon Bowden’s superb Songs From the Floodplain album of earlier this year, the gamble pays off handsomely. Within seconds of the yearning start to The Gardner, you know you’re in the presence of something very special.
A traditional ballad, it sounds like it could have been written yesterday such is the freshness of tone and the lightness of touch that McShane exhibits. Her vocal is one that is conversant with the history and reputation of such a tune, but is utterly unencumbered and far from intimidated.
Away from McShane’s sparkling performances, the core group of James Peacock (piano, keyboards), Jonathan Proud (bass) and Adam Sinclair (drums) provide supple and engaging support. The horn-augmented skitter-funk of Maid on the Shore wheels through tricky signatures as well as rocking it up as McShane herself tears off a blinding fiddle solo.
Elsewhere, elegant and understated arrangements Captain Ward, The Drowned Sailor and opener Miles Weatherhill wouldn’t sound out of place on an ECM label jazz album. Cool spacious keyboard runs, inquisitive and prowling bass, and neatly polished drumming not only lift the instrumental stakes, but serve to elevate McShane’s voice.
And what a voice.
Folk music enthusiasts who’ve been around the block will be able to tell you where they were when they first heard Anne Briggs or Sandy Denny. In a few years a new generation of listeners will be able to do the same when it comes to Rachael McShane.
Bright young folk – august 09
No Man’s Fool
the bright young folk review – Liz Osman
Fusing folk with other musical influences is not a new idea, even if those influences include jazz, funk or soul. Certainly Bellowhead’s ’Bruton Town’ is a bold statement, and other artists like Jim Moray are constantly pushing boundaries with their experimentation. It was therefore a surprise to me how different and exciting this debut effort from Rachael McShane is.
’No Man’s Fool’ features a string of strong women overcoming society and the odd highwayman (!), a refreshing change from the many traditional songs of women undone. Alongside we also hear from more familiar rogues/heroes like Captain Ward.
Several of the songs do tell familiar tales, including ’The Fisherman’ and ’Captain Ward’. With these two having been recently recorded my Maclaine Colston & Saul Rose and Spiers & Boden respectively, Rachael perhaps takes a risk by including them. However, whilst the stories, lyrics or tunes may be familiar, the different approach and direction give the songs a new feel.
That is what works so well on this album, the juxtaposition of the old and new, the familiar and the fresh. It is a shame to my mind that there is no instrumental track on the album. I would be very interested to hear how well the fusion of genres works without the lyrical overlay bringing everything together.
The standout track for me is ’The Fisherman’. The driving rhythm reels me in and will not let go. Rachael’s voice, not always completely to my taste on some tracks, also sounds wonderful recounting the meeting of the maid and the lord.
I came to this album uncertain of what I would find and fearful of whether I would enjoy it. Happily it is now high on my repeat playlist, and looks set to stay there for some time.