Eliza Carthy,
(Topic Records, 1998)

I had no idea what to expect when I put on the first of two recent CDs from Eliza Carthy. The cover photo of Carthy -- with dark roots, multiple piercings and a well-worn fiddle under her chin -- didn't provide many clues, but since she's the daughter of British folk powerhouse Martin Carthy, I had high expectations.

My first thought was that I'd picked up a zydeco album by mistake. Oh well, it was a cheerful accordion, so I settled back to listen.

Red is actually more pop than the U.K. folk I'd expected. A lot more. Take the first track, the oddly titled "Accordion Song (Accidental Saturday Night Kitchen Mix)." Carthy has a good pop voice, although the execution isn't always the best; sometimes, her voice gets a little lost in the music. But the biggest problem with this album, which I discovered with this very first track, is what's missing from the liner notes.

Tell me, doesn't that title make you wonder what it's about? No clue in the notes; all we know is that Carthy wrote it. Ah well, I guess we'll be satisfied with the music alone, which in this case features Carthy on vocals and the one-row accordion, Martin Green on piano keyboard, Barnaby Stradling on electric bass and Sam Thomas on drums.

The next track, "10,000 Miles," again features vocals and accordion. By this time I started to wonder if the fiddle she's holding on the cover is a cruel joke -- but no, wait, there it is, subtle strains in the background. Turns out Green has taken up the piano accordion and Carthy has her fiddle in hand. It suits her.

The songs are getting better by track three, "Billy Boy," a fun rendition of a traditional song over light dance pop and even a bit more fiddle shining through, making me want more ... and she gives it to me, launching into a rockin' fiddle and accordion tune, "The Widow's Wedding," at the end. "Time in the Son" is a Carthy original, but the sparse arrangement and vocal style makes it a fair imitation of a traditional English ballad. The instrumental interlude shows a jazz influence, and now the liner notes appear to be teasing me; Green, it says, plays one thousand pianos on this one, but it didn't sound quite that full to me.

"Stumbling On" goes honkytonk, with Carthy backed by Green on cool piano and Olly Knight playing the electric guitar and "groovy bits." But it's not until track six, "Stingo/The Stacking Reel," that we finally get a focus on the fiddle -- and it's about time! The percussion and bass (Thomas and Stradling) save it from sounding too traditional, which would have sounded out of place given the context of the album so far, but now that Carthy has it out, she shows that she can really use it.

Unfortunately, the fiddle never really comes into heavy play again on this album. The traditional ballad "Greenwood Laddie" gets a funky interpretation which succeeds amazingly well at reinventing the song -- with suitable instrumental tags at the end. "Walk Away" is an easygoing, philosophical song about parting. "Adieu, Adieu" is startlingly mellow in places, and there's some nice funk and groove in "Russia (Call Waiting)" after a deceptively slow, traditional opening. "Red Rice" is a particularly good dance mix, with a sizzling fiddle line leading the way to the floor. There are also some nice vocal harmonies on several tracks -- Carthy backing herself up or relying on singer Lucy Adams for help.

On Red, Carthy shows herself to be an alternative pop girl with a traditional heart, who (on this album, at least) resists the temptation to let too much of that heart show through. It's a shame, really -- a slightly stronger traditional presence would have really helped her songs to stand out. As it is, there's not enough here to please traditional music fans, and the album doesn't really carve her enough of a niche in the pop market. It's too bad, too, because when she lets her fiddle loose, it really sparkles.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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