Nick Hart is an austere, unfussy traditional singer, but far from a dull one; humanity and sly humour crackle warmly through his work. This was there in the bunch of supermarket roses he clutched on the cover of his 2017 debut (Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs) and the eggs he cradled on its follow-up (Nick Hart Sings Nine English Folk Songs). Both albums bristled with intense, stripped-down folk songs, with Hart’s everyday East Anglian delivery giving them extra dimensions of feeling.
Album three was recorded with similar simplicity – most of it in his back bedroom during lockdowns – but this time around, he drafts in more unusual instruments: bones, spoons, a viola da gamba, even a lyre he made from an old banjo and some table legs, played using a similar technique to that of the krar in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where the strings are unmuted to release sound.
Many songs here reveal his sparse, filmic style. It’s easy to imagine landscapes pouring out of the plucked guitar figures of May Song, a Cambridgeshire carol where a man keeps turning to the Lord “again”, a sense of need underlined by a male chorus joining him. Jack Hall is a compelling gallows confessional, while Hart’s version of love song Lemany carries sweetness, as well the mystery of the protagonist’s past.
Hart’s stark musicianship is also sharply affecting. The clarinet he plays at the beginning of Lucy Wan adds a lamenting shiver to the murder ballad, while the guitar-guided Under the Leaves of Life, a tale of going to town and finding “sweet Jesus Christ / with his body nailed to a tree”, feels devastatingly direct. Hart guts and skins these songs, amplifying the eeriness in their ordinariness.
Also out this month
Lamkin: Versions & Variants Across the Northern Hemisphere (Death Is Not the End) is a fascinating cassette and Bandcamp-only release, unearthing previous unreleased field recordings of the bloody murder ballad from archives across the US, Ireland and the UK. Many different, raw and rousing versions twitch the bones, from singers aged between 29 to 93. Another anthology just out on the label, of guttural, mid-century Greek rebetika recordings, A Cloudy Dawn, is also fantastic.
Canadian Folk Music award winner Abigail Lapell’s beautiful fourth album, Stolen Time (Outlaw Music) is a moving collection of songs inspired by nature, the seasons and her family’s experience as refugees fleeing eastern Europe during the Holocaust.