Traditional Irish Music
There’s something deeply ancient in Emily Portman’s voice. The kind of ancient that used to trip my imagination as a young boy reading stories of the English countryside. There’s an undercurrent in British folk music of the pagan. It’s just beneath the surface, mostly unseen, and it’s in many aspects of traditional British culture. A glimpse of some old Pictish fire under the most staid British gentleman. On Hatchling, Portman’s voice walks the lost hedgerows of the countryside, peering into the bushes along the way, and scribbling down the old names and carven faces in the roadside stones. Songs like “Hollin,” a traditional song culled from the vaguely titled songbook Songs of the North, Vol. 1, reflects, in Portman’s own words, her childhood love of exploring English countryside.
Portman’s voice is beguiling, drawing the listener deeper and deeper into the songs, but I should make mention too of her scholarship and her wide-ranging curiosity. The songs on the album come from old manuscripts as well as they do her own pen, and are inspired by topics as diverse as Greek myth, Norse gods, the English countryside, and circus folks. Perhaps my favorite part of this album are the songs that Portman writes herself that are inspired by older songs or manuscripts. She’s not afraid to take an old setting of a song and rework it into something new, or even to pull ideas from old songs. And when she does cover a traditional song, she’s pulling at it, and turning it into the light so as to show the hidden corners of the song. Old Mother Eve, sounding for all the world like a gentle children’s song, hides a subversive message that must date back centuries: “Old Mother Eve she liked apples, and Adam, he liked them too.” Coded feminist messages like this in old songs lends me great amounts of hope for humanity.
I should make special mention of Portman’s incredible song, “Hide,” from Portman’s previous album which takes a disturbing old ballad that encourages domestic abuse and reworks it into a truly powerful song about feminine strength. This kind of deep subversion reminds me that even the most antiquated old songs can still have life to them.
The instrumentation on this album is rich, from plucked harps to clawhammer banjo, to possibly a theremin or musical saw somewhere in the background? The instruments bubble under the music, like a wooded stream, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the whole thing might have been recorded outdoors. Hatchling is an utterly enchanting album, rife with ancient folklore and half-forgotten old rituals, but still sounding utterly modern. Emily Portman should stand with Scottish artist Alasdair Roberts (who not coincidentally guests on this album) as one of the foremost traditional songwriters in the UK.
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