Smoke of Home
(EDJ, 2007)

The title track of Smoke of Home launches Megson's second album with an upbeat, cheery acoustic guitar riff and a catchy melody confidently sung by Stu Hanna. Joined by a quiet fiddle, brushed snare drum and Debbie Palmer's entrancing harmony vocals, the track lives up to the accolades featured in the press release that accompanied this disc: "Megson are amongst the most exciting trailblazers of British Contemporary Folk."

Somehow, however, when the lead vocals on this disc are handled by the female half of Megson, the result is less special. Palmer's voice is pleasant enough, but it lacks the punch that Hanna delivers when he exuberantly holds center stage. Songs like "Just as the Tide," "Humanlands" and "Flood Water" are rendered anonymous by vocals that, while spot on in their pitch, don't provide much in the way of personality. A little less perfection and a little more unbridled vocal passion would have helped make this a more vibrant album. On these tracks I'm reminded of Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, whose breathy, understated delivery was a refreshing change when the band's debut album The Trinity Sessions was released, but whose unflinching use of that ethereal vocal style wore thin quite quickly for many listeners.

Among the songs where I do think Palmer's voice works well is "Follow It On," where the lyric -- "One day I'll leave you she said / One day you'll wake with a hole in your bed / And I know that I promised that we'd never part / But one day I'll break your heart" -- is perfectly matched to her quiet, melancholy vocal. As well, the album's closing track, "Everynight When the Sun Goes In," is well suited to the sleepy presentation Palmer brings to this traditional folk number. And given that this track has been recorded by everyone from Harry Belafonte to The Weavers, giving it a fresh take is a challenge. Megson actually speeds the song up considerably from Belafonte's interpretation, but the sadness of the lyric is not diminished in the least by their "upbeat" tempo.

Most of the highlights belong to Hanna, however. In addition to lead and background vocal duties, he contributes powerful guitar, mandola, mandolin and fiddle performances to the dozen songs on Smoke of Home. Palmer plays whistles on several tracks, adding a beautifully haunting atmosphere to "Follow It On" and a jaunty air to "Fell to the Breeze." Rounding out the sound is the drumming of Iain Goodall and the bass playing of Ben Nichols. Both of these players are solid musicians who augment the songs without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Instead the songs are left in the hands of the core players, both of whom know how to balance the vocal and instrumental components of their material, allowing each aspect of the song room to soar. The big question is how Hanna manages to pull off all the layers of stringed instrumentation in a concert setting. Guess I'll just have to try to catch Megson live to find out how it's done.

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review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

1 March 2008

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