Traditional folk can spring artists into unusual places. Ainsley Hamill began her career in Glasgow folk group Barluath, wrapping her plush, muscular vocals around Gaelic, Scots and English language traditionals, but she begins Not Just Ship Land sounding like last year’s avant-garde newcomer Keeley Forsyth. “Saltwater and city fill my head,” she sings, her voice thick with velvet and murk.
Not Just Ship Land is an idiosyncratic debut. Born in Cardross near Dumbarton, Hamill’s love of Gaelic song was nurtured studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; you occasionally hear the wild wavering of its psalms in her melody writing. But this album’s overall mood is of mainstream, modern torch songs, hovering between the comforting warmth of The Breath and the whip-smart forlornness of early Adele (listen to the way Hamill sings “cackles of girls in trackies and short skirts”, relishing every consonant).
Many of these songs are about women from Glasgow and Govan around the turn of the 20th century. The Will of the People is Law remembers the female-led rent strikers of 1915. Respect Your Elder remembers education champion Lady Elder, whose campaigning allowed women to graduate from Glasgow University from 1892. The Czech Studio Orchestra provides lush accompaniment throughout, although some arrangements work better than others: a setting of a 1907 poem by Scottish writer John McLennan, The Daffodil King, is impressionistic and lovely, but No Time to Lose Time (about munitions worker Lizzie Robinson, awarded an OBE for working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for 18 months) has critical lyrics that get lost in soapy soul. Nevertheless, Hamill has a big, intriguing voice, its Scottishness ever-present, which holds crossover promise.
Also out this month
Damir Imamović’s Singer of Tales (Wrasse) is a gorgeous album of sevdah songs from Bosnia and Herzegovina, produced by Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention). A folk tradition steeped in intense, forlorn longing, the setting for these songs is intimate yet spacious, their tenderness elevated further by Imamović’s sonorous baritone. A 22-track anthology of Canadian folk artist Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps: Creation Never Dies (Light in the Attic) is a meaty introduction to a man dedicated to exploring his indigenous First Nation American heritage through song. Start with the stunning O Canada, a Lee Hazlewood-like spoken-word elegy to his country. It packs a pretty punch. Lovers of swampy, gnarly folk guitars will adore Bobby Lee’s Origin Myths (Tompkins Square); the song titles are as good as the tunes. Impregnated By Drops of Rainbow, anyone?