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FERNHILL - "Ca' Nos" - Beautiful Jo Records BEJOCD14

Julie Murphy on vocals; Andy Cutting, button accordionist extraordinaire, who had recently worked in a duo with fiddler Chris Wood and in collaborations with June Tabor and Sting; Ceri Rhys Matthews, leading figure of Welsh piping plays cittern, lute, clarinet, and Pastoral oboe; and Jonathan Shorland, outstanding Welsh flautist who has long been associated with the music and musicians of Brittany. Fernhill - playing a mix of Welsh, Breton, and English music, and ranging from romantic ballad to ritualistic dance songs. So what do they sound like?

There is an unmistakable hint of Blowzabella - hardly surprising considering Andy Cutting's roots with the band, and the period Julie Murphy spent in the critically acclaimed duo Whirling Pope Joan, with Blowzabella's hurdy-gurdy maestro Nigel Eaton! The CD has a blend of songs and tunes which serves to demonstrate the historical cultural links between the two Celtic lands of Wales and Brittany. Typical of the album is "Ridees Pastwn mawr" - a set of songs slipping seamlessly from French to Welsh, surprisingly well matched in feel and structure, a very natural combination.

Murphy's vocals are superb on this and all other songs. She is relaxed and powerful, and moves easily from hard-edged lyrics to soft, sensitive ballads with a voice redolent of Tabor, Prior, and Mara. I know that sounds wrong, but I can hear elements of them all in there. Julie Murphy really is quite a remarkable singer. "Brigg Fair" (my favourite track), has her pure soaring vocals combined with a wholly apt accompaniment from Cutting, Shorland and Matthews, which slips fluidly into the excellent "Glaw-Man", a composition for flute by Matthews.

There is also a piece by Jonathan Shorland, "March Glas Stump", which starts off with fine and delicate squeezebox from Cutting supporting the Welsh lyrics before going into an instrumental section with the band taking the music to Eastern Europe and back again. Excellent.

This is followed by "Le Gabier de Terre-Neuvre" (my other favourite track), with Murphy's superb vocals yet again, before running into a Marc Perrone tune where Andy Cutting demonstrates his absolute master of the button box. Just listen to it and tell me that it's anything less than superb, if you dare!

The standard of musicianship throughout the CD is of the highest order. Matthews' cittern and Shorland's flute on "Lloer Dirion", and Matthews again with amazing Sudanese lute accompanying Murphy's exquisite control and phrasing on "Banks of the Nile" - over nine minutes of pure enjoyment (definitely my favourite track). At the end of the album they return to the ritual dance of Brittany with the final track, "Pilons l'herbe", where the vocals are enhanced by Pastoral oboe and underpinned by more of Cutting's box playing.

This is a brilliant CD which shows maturity, and a feeling for the music which is extremely unusual in a debut recording. I just can't wait to see the band live. I'm no doctor, but trust me anyway, and buy this CD. The more you listen, the better it gets!

Mel Howley

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This album was reviewed in Issue 19 of The Living Tradition magazine.