It seems that all acoustic folk musicians are destined to eventually seek to expand and electrify their sound, and the case is no different for English folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Eliza Carthy. Being the daughter of legendary folk guitarist Martin Carthy — easily amongst the most pivotal songwriters in the genre, inspiring the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Richard Thompson — and Norma Waterson, founding member of traditional folksters The Watersons, Eliza Carthy’s awareness and appreciation of folk music in its varying forms is a given. The influence from both of her parents has permeated much of her work, most notably in the early stages of her career, in which her music retained a much more purist and traditional folk aesthetic. The singer’s music on her latest album, Big Machine, remains firmly rooted in the practices established by her parents and their contemporaries, but has nevertheless progressed to include broader use of instrumentation and arrangement, with her backing group, The Wayward Band, being 12-members strong, whilst also employing the outside help of other artists, most notably son of Richard and Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, on the cover of Rory McLeod’s Hug You Like a Mountain. Along with this musical expansion comes Carthy’s heightened keenness to tackle more imposing lyrical topics, ranging from domestic abuse to the current refugee crisis. The results are certainly ambitious on this new release, but are occasionally not necessarily the better for it, with some of the bold endeavours falling slightly short of the mark. Some of the risks taken by Carthy are actualised very well, but the few that come across as underdeveloped leave Big Machine as somewhat of a mixed release at certain points.
The opening track, Fade & Fall (Love Not), boasts perhaps the most successful realisation of Carthy’s grandiose sound on the entire record. Carthy provides a clean and pure vocal performance that is amongst her most memorable on Big Machine, and the ravishing horns are used to their full effect, driving the song forward with no notable hitches. The timbre of this piece is impressively diverse without sounding cluttered, with The Wayward Band utilising instruments such as a fuzzy guitar, a glockenspiel, an electric organ, and much more, as to create a well-assembled and textured piece that sounds fresh after many subsequent listens. Fade & Fall (Love Not) even features a fantastic bridge section, which is introduced by a plucked violin with some low, rumbling fuzz before the rest of the band burst back in. The horn section here sounds like it could have been lifted from a James Bond soundtrack, and the distant female vocals only reinforce this resemblance. Indeed, this opener is an incredible introduction to Big Machine, brandishing the indulgent instrumentation that appears on much of this record in its most complete form. Such a strong opening track alluded to great things for the album, however not all of the songs on here attain the heights reached by this song.
Although the decadent timbre goes down a treat on Fade & Fall (Love Not), there are instances in which the liberal use of instrumentation pulling from a plethora of different musical stylings sounds cluttered or distracting. This is perhaps most notable on You Know Me, which features MC Dizraeli, a rapper with whom I was completely unfamiliar until seeing him listed as a feature on Big Machine. The Wayward Band seemingly tried to incorporate a style of folk rock that would be more accommodating for an MC to spit bars over, as shown by the steady hip hop drumbeat and slightly funky, clicky guitar, and the result is a relatively decent instrumental, although You Know Me certainly doesn’t display some of the best use of the band’s prowess on the record. MC Dizraeli is really what highlights this cut as a dud in the tracklisting, with his verse worked into the composition really quite awkwardly, which is only emphasised by the lacklustre mixing that leaves his bars swamped by the grand instrumentation. The rapper’s ad-libs throughout the rest of the song are distracting to say the least, adding nothing to the piece and only bringing attention to just how out of place his feature is on a folk record. Understandably, You Know Me is one of the less distinctly folky songs on Big Machine, with the band aiming for more of a jazzy approach, but this doesn’t save MC Dizraeli’s appearance from sounding forced and clumsily worked into the cut.
Big Machine often shines best on the songs that display a more traditional approach to folk music whilst still applying some contemporary ideas. Great Grey Back, for instance, with its crooning fiddle lines and Carthy’s vocals being mocked by a chanting chorus of burly male voices, sounds rather typical of traditional Celtic folk music, but the horns and sluggish drumbeat bring it into a slightly different context that goes over quite well. The Sea also stands out as a result of Carthy’s vocal performance during the introduction being true to many of the most important attributes of unabashed English folk music, with the ambient strings evoking feelings of ominous weather nearing. Indeed, as the listener is plunged into the main body of the composition, it’s as if a storm has hit the sea. The hard drumming and the tense horns provide a feeling of urgency to the track that Carthy toys with nicely with her singing. A sparse bridge section, with a smooth bass line holding fort as the strings build up suspense, provides a slight breather from the obstreperousness of the dramatic instrumentation throughout the rest of the song. Numerous other songs in the tracklisting, such as Devil in the Woman and The Fitter’s Song, provide similar approaches to folk music that are true to traditions whilst bringing them into a modern context, and these moments make for the most memorable parts of the record. Indeed, Carthy displays an admirable willingness to move out of her comfort zone on Big Machine and, although it is successful for the most part, the few moments that fall flat leave me slightly hesitant about this release.
The better moments on Big Machine certainly see Carthy’s bold visions being realised and simultaneously display the songwriter’s keen knowledge of folk music, new and old. However, the wanting moments create some notable reservations for me with regards to this approach and how well it could be improved in the future. Ultimately, I do believe that, with more focus and discipline, Carthy’s audacious ideas could come to full fruition. Until then, the best cuts on Big Machine are most definitely enough to have me hoping for more music like this from the singer on her future material.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10