Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage : Before the Sun2016: Sungrazing Records
I once worked with an ex-Premier League footballer, and the clearest memory of the experience is him demanding from trainees that even a cup of half time tea had to be made with real love and focus if they were ever going to get anywhere; he felt that attitude is everything, and it can't just be turned on and off, it has to be pervasive. It's an exhausting approach to life, but if you saw a video of him playing at his imperious best you'd perhaps understand.
Well he'd be pleased with this - there's an awful lot of love gone into the making of this album, every moment of it, which is why it is one of the most successful explorations of what a folk duo can do released in recent years.
Both Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage come from folk singing families from East Anglia; even as a child Hannah toured with her family in an old school bus, making their living from singing acappella folk songs. She has also lived in America, and absorbed a lot of influences there, whilst Ben was (and is still) an integral member of the acclaimed folk band The Willows.
Their partnership started when Ben produced Hannah's well received debut solo album - Charms Against Sorrow - he then toured with her, the songs set out on Before the Sun evolving almost accidentally during that time, as they explain on the CD's sleeve, "Much of the material here is a consequence of captured moments before gigs, at the end of rehearsals, or snuck into the small moments where we shared a song or an idea."
This album, their debut as a duo, was recorded in Toronto with award-winning Canadian producer David Travers-Smith at the helm.
It is a gorgeous, mellow delight.
A mix of traditional tunes, covers and self penned songs, the whole set is captured with wrap-around intimacy; Hannah showcasing her perfectly plangent vocals, as well as guitar, autoharp and dulcimer; Ben contributing flawlessly elegant guitar, dobro and vocals. There is a host of pedigree guests, but the heart of the album is always what these two can do with their voices and instruments.
First their own writing: The Fall (Hang) opens the album - poetically binding an evocation of autumn to a sense of mortality (prosaically put it describes a hanging from the person being hanged's perspective) - and lets you hear the beautiful instrument that is Hannah's singing voice to full effect. What's it Tonight My Love? is equally good - with a lead vocal by Ben, and again a spare, graceful lyric. The only disappointment of this collection is that it does not feature more of their own compositions.
Next the traditional songs: they are all first rate interpretations - Come All Ye Fair & Tender Maids has a lovely light, dynamic vocal, whilst Lady Margaret is more dramatic, and the most traditional sounding track. From a version overheard in a Cambridge folk club Clayton Boone is the centre piece of the whole album, six minutes of storytelling musical bliss. Deep Blue Sea and Unquiet Grave are both plaintive in subject and delivery, the latter especially expressive.
Finally the covers: Sun is Gonna Rise (Ben Miller) is a gentle, hopeful breeze in this reading; Ribbons and Bows (Richie Sterns) has a bright, shuffling upbeat rhythm. Then the last track on the whole album is Boots of Spanish Leather (Dylan), performed here as a dialogue ballad, and a song heard a hundred times before is completely refreshed by their interpretation.
This is a great album, reminiscent of another beguiling marvel, Lewis & Leigh's Ghost, but with as much English folk heritage evident as Americana. As with Ghost the instrumentation is often minimal, just what is needed to frame and guide the vocals, and always impeccably judged and played.
There should be excitement and awards, kerfuffle and applause - by rights this debut album will establish Sanders & Savage as a significant UK folk act. And you'd trust them to make you a brew.
HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE I The Fall