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The Glamoury
Furrow Records  FUR002

Emily Portman’s debut album is a rare and magnificent outpouring of creative imagination.  Her songs are unique but flourish from the ancient, magical earth of European balladry and fairytale.  She describes the collection as “new songs with old bones, old stories with new skin, drawn from folktales, ballads, dreams and real life.”

Listening to them all in one sitting was as intense a musical experience as I can remember.  You feel the tension between the dark content and Emily’s bright, almost innocent voice.  The supernatural exists alongside the reality of Newcastle streetlife.  The maverick melodies trip you up. You are lost in a dangerous nursery rhyme, too mesmerised to escape. Meanings are slippier than in the old ballads, but you begin to grasp a theme.  Her heroines have bad things done to them – perhaps by an abusive husband or a jealous sister, perhaps just by life.  But they survive somehow, even through rebirth or transformation. Emily is a young woman conveying a female experience.

How to give a flavour of twelve startling songs in a few words? Bones And Feathers and Tongue-Tied are strong openers which use the age-old storytelling device of metamorphosis from human to animal.  Little Longing (an aching lullaby for an unborn child) and Pretty Skin (with a devouring witch) are products of Emily’s dreams. Stick Stock finds Susie murdered and baked in pies by her stepmother, but her spirit sings out. It’s a perfect fit with Two Sisters, the only traditional song.  Mossycoat  is the glamoury in action: an enchantment that reveals beauty where before there was none. It’s based on a traditional tale from Northumbrian traveller Taimie Boswell.  Emily also cites Angela Carter and Clarissa Pinkola Estes as inspirations.

Those maverick melodies and the string-based musical arrangements are hugely important. They demand close attention, but are no distraction. They support Emily’s powerful lyrics by conveying danger, terror, longing, and wonder.  Lucy Farrell’s viola and Rachel Newton’s harp (no human bones or strands of hair were used in its making) are especially influential, but there are fine contributions also from Christi Andropolis, David Newey, Rachael McShane, Gabriel Waite and Hinny Pawsey.  The harmony singing of Lucy and Rachel adds to the rich texture.

Emily has been best known for her work with The Devil’s Interval and Rubus, but the creativity revealed here puts her at the top table. The Glamoury demands the same attention as other great albums which haul you beyond the commonplace and beyond time, like The Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Mike and Lal Waterson’s Bright Phoebus, and Chris Wood’s The Lark Descending.  If you want easy listening, there’s a shedload of young folkies adding a shot of jazz or a splash of swing to the old songs and tunes. Emily is something special.

Tony Hendry

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This album was reviewed in Issue 87 of The Living Tradition magazine.