I was in the school choir when I was ten years old. I mean, everyone in my class was in the choir but it’s pertinent to remember that at some stage in my life, I was encouraged to sing. After a concert in the Hall at St. Paul’s Church Of England Primary School in Winchmore Hill, standing next to my musical guru, Peter, I basked in the glory of the applause at the end of our show. My parents were in the audience and my Dad shouted out “Encore”. When we got home he had to explain to me why he was shouting out obscure French words.
Fast forward five years and I was in a Music lesson at Judd Grammar School. Everyone in the class had been sent outside the music hut and Mr. Magness was walking down the line of boys putting his ear very close to everybody’s mouth. These were, indeed, strange days. He claimed (rightly, as it happens) that nobody was singing although he could see everybody’s lips moving. As his ear approached a very low, almost inaudible murmur would emit from every boy’s lips only to stop as he moved on.
Fast forward another 50 years and whenever I am feeling particularly sunny and optimistic I will start singing my current favourite song. At which point Roo will tell me to stop making an awful noise. I have to say that there are times when even I have to admit that I can’t hold a tune. At my nephew’s wedding in Italy last year, I stood next to his friend and we claimed afterwards that we were singing in harmony. In other words, neither of us were singing the correct notes but hoped that the combined effect would provide some harmonic cancellation of the wrong notes.
When Paul and Rob sung together in pubs and clubs 20 years ago their harmonies were fantastic. I don’t understand how people sing in harmony. So many of my favourite artists provide incredible harmonies. Rachel and Becky Unthank sing beautiful harmonies. The feature of their singing that really appeals to me, apart from the combined effect of two different voices, is the synchronous phrasing. I don’t know if that’s the correct term but when The Unthanks sing “Magpie”, not only are the words sung at exactly the same time but I can clearly hear them drawing breath at the same time. I have always thought that this is probably due to the fact that, as sisters, they have spent many years singing together and understand each other at a sub conscious level. See also The Everley Brothers. When The Band sing harmony, the sound is great but they are not singing at exactly the same time. Richard Manuel might come in very slightly than Levon Helm and Rick Danko might not sing the note for as long as either of them.
Cara Luft and JD Edwards sing beautiful synchronous harmonies throughout both of their records. Cara Luft used to be in a group called The Wailin’ Jennys and JD Edwards used to be in a group called The Dry Bones. They don’t have the advantage that Rachel and Becky Unthank have of growing up as siblings. They were paired together to perform during the West End Cultural Centre’s 25th Anniversary Concert in Winnipeg in 2012. As soon as they started singing together they realised that they had stumbled onto something special. Cara Luft said “I’ve been wanting to sing harmony with someone for a really long time, especially a guy, I had done the female harmony thing, and that was really beautiful, but I felt like I just needed a sonic shift. Singing with JD was like, ‘Holy crap! This is phenomenal. This guy is the best singer I’ve ever sung with.”
Roo read a review of their first record (“Wondrous Traveler”) in The Guardian in 2016 and I bought it and loved it. It features a great version of “Way Over Yonder” which is a Woody Guthrie song that Billy Bragg recorded for the first “Mermaid Avenue” album. There’s also a beautiful song called “Something To Hold Onto”. Peter and I went to see them at The Con Club in Lewes in 2018 and it was magical performance. This record was released in 2019 and it’s even better than their first record.
The harmonies are a key feature but there is a variety of different instrumentation on the record. It’s a “folk” record.
On the ninth song “You Can’t Be High” they take it in turns to sing the verses before singing perfect harmonies on the choruses. I can’t imagine how they sing together so perfectly. Does the recorded version reflect hours and hours of practice or is there an unseen force of nature at work here? It is glorious.
The seventh song is “Secondhand” and it features a swooping bridge between verses where Cara Luft and JD Edwards harmonise a transition which is astounding. It’s quite clear that words are failing me.
The song that always brings me to tears is the third song “Oh My Love”. From the first line, “Darling, can you hear me. I’m calling your name out on the mountainside”, the beauty and skill of the music is overwhelming. Every time they sing “My heart is breaking”, a little tear forms in my eyes. As the song develops, the intensity increases. When they sing “Here I go again. On my own again. Walking through the fire – flames are getting higher. What is left behind? A love that you denied. hear me now. hear me now. hear me!” the emotion is so overwhelming that they both express the release of their emotions with wordless sounds. As they carry on singing their mouths can’t seem to open wide enough to let all the feelings out. The only part of the song when they don’t harmonise is the last “When my heart is breaking” which Cara Luft sings sorrowfully. It’s truly wonderful.
Every song on this wonderful record is beautiful. Small glories indeed.