Ray Hearne,
Broad Street Ballads
(No Masters, 2001)

I was immediately interested in the sleeve notes, which explain: "Rotherham-born, of Irish parents, Ray Hearne's songs try in the main to bring together South Yorkshire speech and Irish melody." It is this combination of South Yorkshire (particularly its dialect and sense of local community) and Ireland (especially the musical heritage) that marks Broad Street Ballads as something unique and worthy of special listening.

The album is balanced between songs with a personal and lyrical touch, and those with a more historical and political perspective. It begins with an excellent example of each. "The Merry Music of the Minstrel Man" pays tribute to his Irish musical heritage through his parents. It really is an outstanding opening song with its brilliant singing and instrumentation creating a rich tapestry of sound. Ray's distinctive lyrics, singing and acoustic guitar are underpinned by a range of instruments including, most notably, accordion (Luke Daniels) and uillean pipes (Steafan Hannigan). Not surprisingly, the song has a powerful Irish ambience and repeated listenings are rewarded with a growing awareness of the track's subtleties. The lyrics speak directly, as in the poignant line, "The song of love weakens even winter wind."

"Calling Joe Hill" is a political song I first heard performed by John Wright at the 2003 Middlewich Festival. A strong link between the song at that gig and on this album is Maartin Allcock's fine bass playing. The sleeve notes explain that the song is "a plea for assistance to the spirit of the great union organiser and song-maker." Although Ray's performance on the album is a quieter version than John's at the gig, it is very effective nonetheless. The use of drums and three backing singers works well, as does the piano (which I think makes more impact than the keyboards both here and on other tracks). A wonderful conclusion combines the vocals with the uillean pipes again.

There are several powerful and moving songs about the links between the local community and heavy industry during a period of decline. Any sense of bleakness, though, is dissipated by other, more personal songs. Two of my favourites are "Harry Appleblossom" and "Dark Disbelief." "Harry Appleblossom" is described as a hymn for those in mourning with the basis of the tune being "Wexford Carol." This is an unusual and haunting song with its distinctive and eerie use of tabla (Ben Clark). The lyrics here are particularly fine, as the opening lines illustrate -- "The earth is turning in our sleep / Winter retreating, icicle-deep / The silver birch-lit pit-heaps move / Like overhead things we cannot prove" -- almost with echoes of Edward Thomas's poetry. "Dark Disbelief" has quite a different jazz-type ambience including vibrophone, piano and noteworthy tenor saxophone (Tim Garland). The song speaks of the power of love over gloom about pit closures.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 17 April 2004