Susan Hickey,
Water Meets Sand
(self-produced, 2002)

I was given Water Meets Sand as a gift by my wife, who has had nearly three decades to figure out my musical likes and dislikes. In this self-produced disc by singer/guitarist Susan Hickey, she has struck deep into the heart of the kind of spirited folk music that I love best and has at the same time added to my growing collection of nautical-themed traditional and standard folk.

Though the heavy lifting musically falls to Hickey, she has recruited able musical assistance in the form of J. Michael Faulkner, whose mandolin and sturdy vocals complement well the stirring renditions captured herein. This is not a flawless work, but the manner in which it was put together captures the immediacy and zeal that I think lies at the heart of all great folk performances. Though the engineering is exceptionally clean, lean and well-balanced, it allows for spontaneity and whimsy that well serve the material being essayed.

We open with a spirited, up-tempo version of "Fiddler's Green, as Faulkner and Hickey trade vocals measure for measure all the way through. The original song "J&E Riggin" follows, a paen to life aboard a schooner built in the 1920s and which today plies the coast of Maine and gives folks a taste of life aboard a sailing vessal. In the traditional "If I Was a Blackbird," Hickey demonstrates that she understands the tricky business of vocal ornamentation in folk singing, and the one sour note in the last verse only underscores for me the vitality of the recording choices made when laying these tracks down.

There follows the seldom-heard "Humors of Whiskey," a bit of Celtic scat-singing rendered with a cappella brio, and past that, a slower cover of the traditional hauling-on "Mingulay Boat Song." The next cut, the arctic whaling shanty paradoxically titled "Old Maui," is my favorite tune on the disc, complete with false start and all. The standard "Raglan Road" is opened with a good turn on the whistle and comes off well in Hickey's hands, and her read of "Red is the Rose" features some lovely vocal exchanges between her and Faulkner.

Thence to a smart rendition of the Makem classic, "Rambles of Spring" (a dim-fine tune even without the associations with an e-journal that shall remain nameless anon), and a sterling version of the seldom-heard "Strike the Bell, Second Mate," a sentiment strongly held by all who have stood a full 8-hour watch only to be held above-decks by the tolling of "all-hands." This rendition, in its structuring of harmony vocals, strongly evokes classic-era Fairport Convention and (to a lesser extent) Steeleye Span.

There follows the lovely original tune "Passage to Barra" (penned by Sandra Sparks), in which the vocal duet of Hickey and Faulkner absolutely shines. The cover of John Prine's "Rocky Mountain Time" is perhaps the weakest tune of the set, as the vocals are right at the edge of being overly mannered (it's the only place on the disc where one gets the feeling that Hickey is working too hard to get the vocals right), but the disc closes strongly with a splendid guitar rendering by Jon Finger of the traditional "Blind Mary," a quiet conclusion to a rousing outing....

...Or is it? Those willing to wait through almost 10 minutes of silence will find themselves fetched up upon the shores of a rather ... unique exploration of the classic shanty "Paradise Street" (the old "Blow the Man Down" song). For reasons passing this listener's understanding, Hickey and her associates decided to give this traditional tune a new tradition, as it is rendered with great gusto as a new horizon in rap music. If my only comment about the result is, "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. " I will leave it to you, gentle readers, as to the conclusions you might draw.

When all is said and done, then, Water Meets Sand is a musical journey well worth taking, and I only hope that this is but the first of many musical gifts which Susan Hickey and her musical cohort have in store for us in the years to come.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 17 October 2004