23rd October 2018
Music can move you in different ways. It can physically move you – make you want to jump out of your chair, or clench your fists, or curl up against the world. It can move you emotionally, as anyone who has ever cried cathartically at their favourite song can tell you. And it can take you on a less tangible journey too, a journey of, for want of a better phrase, intellectual discovery. We come out at the end of certain songs – and folk songs are particularly good for this – changed by a new knowledge, driven to act by a newfound sense of justice, surprised into a new wisdom by a previously unknown historical detail. It is rare to find new music that can successfully achieve more than one or two of these things, but on A Problem Of Our Kind Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have produced an album capable of making you dance, cry and think. And what is more, they do it straight from the off.
The album’s opening track, Gauntlet, is a brawny folk-rock masterstroke. Spare but heavy, full of the fiddle screech and forceful drums that characterised the best bits of mid-seventies Steeleye Span, it is nonetheless very much the duo’s own song. Because where Gilmore and Roberts really excel is in their songwriting. They split the job roughly half and half, and Gauntlet is one of Gilmore’s songs. It is an emotional and eloquent account of one of the strangest and most influential court cases in British legal history, the Ashford v Thornton case of 1818. Gilmore writes herself into the mind of William Ashford, brother of Mary, whom he was certain had been murdered by Abraham Thornton. Ashford appealed against the ‘not guilty’ verdict, causing Thornton to invoke the arcane right of trial by battle – the proverbial throwing down of the gauntlet. In a few swift strokes, Gilmore paints a vivid picture of Ashford as a righteous, principled man stymied by physical meekness. Like many true stories, there is no happy ending, and the song raises more questions than it answers. It is a subtle and highly entertaining way of shedding fresh light on a small but important corner of our shared past.
The pair generally take the lead vocal on their own compositions (a la Lennon and McCartney), and both have strong voices as well as songwriting skills from the top drawer. Roberts’ first contribution is the soft swell of The Philanthropist (Take It From Me), a song about businessman Laurie Marsh. A fingerpicked guitar bubbles gently under the song before a cushiony burst of cello temporarily takes over. The album is full of beautifully observed moments like this, some credit for which must go to co-producer Ben Savage (who, along with Gilmore, is also a member of The Willows).
The songs of a more documentary nature are offset by those of a more personal nature. The melancholy country lilt of Things You Left Behind (with Savage contributing dobro) is Gilmore’s heartbreaking meditation on grief, loss and self-reconciliation. Bone Cupboard is spikier, more enigmatic. A minimal musical punctuation of handclaps allows Gilmore’s lead vocal to shine, and Roberts’ harmonies provide a worthy counterpoint.
Perhaps Roberts’ strongest suit as a songwriter is social commentary. The Smile And The Fury – inspired by the now-famous photograph of woman smiling in the face of a verbally abusive EDL protester – reads like a piece of ekphrastic poetry. Roberts has an eye for detail which, when coupled with his passionate vocal delivery and the song’s urgent structure, make for a potent mix. On The Line is a much more sedate affair, but no less powerful. It is a song about suicide: a difficult subject to write about, there is no getting around that. It takes skill and sensitivity to avoid making trite comments, sounding wise after the event, over-generalising, but Roberts succeeds by seeing the event from multiple points of view, by examining the social consequences of the act and, most importantly, by bringing his own compassion to the forefront. The song has its fair share of clever wordplay, but it never detracts from the importance of the points being made.
Roberts further examines the human condition in Average Joe, which asks pressing questions about how being unhappy has become the norm. The intro provides another excellent example of his guitar playing, and the pair’s harmony singing, before the song twists into a complex arrangement of melodies and driving, bounding rhythms. It’s folk rock, but in terms of lyrics and musical presentation, it feels utterly contemporary. This and many of the songs on A Problem Of Our Kind are closer to a full-band sound than much of Gilmore and Roberts’ previous output, and great credit must go to a rhythm section of Fred Claridge on drums and Matt Downer on double bass, as well as Sarah Smout (cello) and Matt Crum (melodeon).
There are two further Gilmore songs: the stripped back instrumentation and laconic but tender vocal of All The Way To Rome. The fact that this deceptively sweet love song was inspired by current US television series American Horror Story goes to show how omnivorous the duo’s songwriting appetite is. A willingness to draw inspiration from the wellspring of often disparate cultural sources is a real asset, and to be able to marry that up to the ability to write songs in the folk tradition is a rare gift indeed. Gilmore’s final song, Just A Piece Of Wood, is a layered reflection on a musician’s relationship with her art, and the physicality of playing a particular instrument. It also becomes a deeper commentary on the lasting nature of objects and the memories they carry.
Despite the wealth of writing and compositional talent on show, there is room on the album for one traditional track, From Night Til Morn, an old melody arranged for guitar by Roberts. It becomes a lissom instrumental with shades of Martin Simpson and displays yet another side of this enviably talented duo. But essentially this album is a masterclass in songwriting and a lesson in how to present songs with incredibly diverse themes so that they hang perfectly together. As Roberts says, it’s all about being human, with all the infinite nuances humanity entails. And the songs here present those nuances in the freshest, boldest and most accomplished way.
Thomas Blake< Back to news