Martin Simpson,
Kind Letters
(Topic, 2006)

Kind Letters is a sheer delight from start to finish. Martin Simpson's unadorned, unforced vocals are on fine form throughout, faultlessly following the infectious rhythms he picks out with his outstanding guitar playing. Where there is additional musical accompaniment, it is equally stunning -- carefully measured, and only where it's needed. This is no small wonder, given that the supporting cast includes the phenomenal Irish band Danu and stellar English musicians Nancy Kerr and James Fagan.

The album opens with a typically dark and murderous folk ballad, "The Cruel Brother," given a delightful rhythmic undercurrent courtesy of Simpson's stunning guitar playing. His unfussy vocal style is ideally suited to the material throughout, but Kind Letters is certainly an ensemble performance -- Simpson is not merely singing against a backdrop of instruments. The instrumental skill on display here is an integral part of the whole sound.

"Here's Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy" is a beautifully tender performance, where Simpson's vocals and flamboyant guitar are sympathetically accompanied by Irish band Danu. This makes for a particularly appealing, warm and inviting few minutes. Simpson's virtuoso fingers also find their way up and down the fret board of a banjo on the American tune "House Carpenter." Needless to say, the sound Simpson wrings out of the banjo is equally as awe-inspiring as his trademark guitar style, and in this particular case perfectly recalls the origins of the song.

A couple of tracks are without vocals and exhibit the varying facets of Simpson's adeptness with the guitar. The haunting and evocative "A Blacksmith Courted Me" is graced with Simpson's desolate slide guitar, layered over a mesmerising violin and viola arrangement, courtesy of Kerr -- to say this is packed to the brim with poignancy and atmosphere would be an absolute understatement. In contrast, "Bareback to Bullhassocks" finds Simpson nimbly picking out a sprightly guitar rhythm, alongside Chris Parkinson's equally agile accordion, creating a real sense of fun.

The sleeve notes provide interesting detail of the history and origin of all the songs and tunes, lending further emphasis to the authenticity of the recording -- many of the songs appear to have been known by Simpson throughout his career. Within this genre, it really doesn't get any better than this -- Simpson is surely at the top of his game on Kind Letters.

by Mike Wilson
3 March 2007

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