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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Fern Maddie: Ghost Story review – an unnerving, arresting folk debut | Music

Vermont-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Fern Maddie fell for British and Irish traditional music in her teens, then inhaled folk songs and began songwriting, encouraged by her composer father. After his early death, she decided to live her life making music in tribute to him in her own curious way. She now makes a podcast about traditional music, Of Song and Bone, writes music in her woodland cabin, tends goats, and documents her life, without embellishment, on Instagram.

Fern Maddie: Ghost Story cover art.
Fern Maddie: Ghost Story cover art.

Ghost Story is Maddie’s powerful, immediate 10-track debut (you can imagine her singing its songs on festival stages, as if early-career Sharon Van Etten had been diverted on to an ancient, rougher road). The mood throughout evokes the dimly lit intimacy of early 2000s albums by Diane Cluck, Emilíana Torrini and Nina Nastasia, with added warmth. Tunes are often carried by banjo or guitar, supported by low strings, the percussive shudder of bones, or on Scottish ballad Ca’ the Yowes, a synthesiser providing a strangely fitting, scratchy counterpoint.

Maddie’s young, welcoming voice also makes her an accessible storyteller. This often gives a surprisingly unnerving quality to songs that already hang heavy with horror, something she plays with. As she twists the gender roles in the well-known ballad Hares on the Mountain, turning the maids into hares, and men into the hunters, contemporary US politics barrels into view.

Her fantastic, original lyrics unsettle you, too. “Don’t worry, don’t wait around / Just leave me in the ground,” begins the protagonist of Unmarked, before we’re told delicately, terrifyingly, to “take off that winded skin”. Even better is Dorothy May, the tale of a woman who sleeps “on a pillow of salt brine”, then asks if we can hear the trumpets ring out. This album is constantly arresting, emotional and thrilling.

Also out this month

Experimental composer Luciano Berio’s 1964 arrangements of traditional music from countries including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Sardinia and the US are performed by the Ficino Ensemble and Michelle O’Rourke on the newly released Folk Songs (Ergodos Recordings). Trained in baroque vocal music, O’Rourke’s contributions dazzle with unaffected clarity.

Simmerdim’s Curlew Sounds (RSPB) is a beautiful two-album set that combines the folk talents of the Unthanks and Saami yoiker singer Marja Mortensson with Talvin Singh, David Gray, and soundscape artists, raising money to help protect the endangered bird.

Topette!!’s Bourdon (self-released) sees the upcoming Anglo-French party band revelling in joyous polkas and mazurkas, underlining the pleasure of European unions.

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