Words by Grey Malkin
Minstrels for Sleepless, or multi-instrumentalist Nick Palmer (of Directorsound and The A. Lords) along with friends such as psych folk artist Sharron Kraus, vocalists Ellen Harris and Grainne Nestor, cello player Chris Cole (Third Eye Foundation) and percussionist Ian Holford (Nectarine No.9), initially presented the long awaited My Father the Sea & Other Fables as a limited CD-r pressing on the splendid Reverb Worship imprint, and it is now also a welcome addition on the project’s Bandcamp site. A pleasingly disorientating slice of baroque beauty, tinged with melancholy folk and transportive instrumental passages, this is an album like no other.
The album begins with a gorgeous merging of drawn-out cello notes and Palmer’s piano, before a metronomic pulse enters with the chime of zithers, and the piece becomes a widescreen landscape of windswept beauty both heartrending and comforting, until it cultimates in a vast accordion crescendo. Instrumental and highly emotive, there are hints of Palmer’s previous work as Directorsound here (namely the eclectic and atmosphere drenched ‘I Hunt Alone’). ‘Voices from the Riverbank, Whispers from the Shore’ follows, with the sound of running water providing its own percussion alongside a ritualistic hand drum, as woodwind hovers and flits by like damsel or dragonflies, seductive and otherworldly. A collection of vocals gently lament over cascades of piano and acoustic guitar, as bells shimmer and glisten in the late afternoon sunlight. Not unlike a 21st century The Incredible String Band, there is something highly inviting and immersive about approaching Minstrels for Sleepless’s world, indeed there are new worlds created here alone that are rich in their own mood and detail. ‘The Field’ is a case in point, the distant song of a wood pigeon ushering in a delicate and heartbreaking banjo melody that is accompanied by Sharron Kraus’s plaintive vocals, conjuring something sacred from amongst the silence. This gracefulness and gentle sadness is further accentuated by the shades and hues provided by a mixture of subtle piano, swooping recorder notes and clarinet. Hugely evocative and intricately put together, there is a real sense of this album being a deeply personal and carefully crafted piece of work, a genuine labour of love.
‘My Father the Sea – Part 1’ begins with the steady beat from a hand drum, zither notes adding a majestic and mystical edge to the processionary momentum. A psych folk symphony, as the piano enters and warmly embraces the track it feels like this calls out to be a soundtrack to a similarly inclined film, something touched with both nature and solitude. Next, ‘Black Tulip, White Sparrow’ springs forth upon handclaps and bells, building and layering before falling away into a melancholy torch song, with brushed cymbals and adventurous piano adding a jazz tinge that is reminiscent of Robert Wyatt’s classic Rock Bottom. ‘My Father the Sea – Part 2’ also utilises bells to add mood and texture, with additional minimal synth swirls, acoustic guitar melodies, pedal steel and whistling combining and creating an inviting sepia coloured mood that draws the listener willingly in. There is something both curious and impressive going on, where a sense of space and sparseness co-exists quite comfortably with the significant amount of musical details that are present here and which are constantly emerging, not unlike a folk orchestra that uses restraint as a means of emotional heft and power. A fine example of just this, ‘O Sweet Celandine!’ closes the album with crescendos of piano, hints of woodwind and hushed percussion and is truly mesmerising, an affecting and moving conclusion.
My Father the Sea & Other Fables does evoke the sense that we are listening to a series of folk or fairy tales, each track a vignette or story that remains enough of a blank canvas that we can project or interpret our own meanings upon it. The welcome exploration and experimentation never takes away from the strong sense of melody or stately beauty, nor does it provide a barrier to losing yourself in amongst the wonder that is created here. Perhaps take time away from this busy and bustled world, instead journey a while in the sun specked haze of Minstrels for Sleepless. It will be time well spent.
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