Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party: Orfeo

The Hurricane Party: it’s an evocative name. You’d be forgiven for expecting a messy musical whirlwind. But the “fantasy folk band” – assembled by Fay Hield – is in fact evidence of her meticulous, scholarly approach to traditional music. Fay Hield Orfeo

Jon Boden, Andy Cutting, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney were chosen not for their musical versatility or individual talent (of which they have bags, naturally), but for their understanding and sympathy as a group. “I wanted people that would react with each other and make amazing music,” says Hield in the album’s EPK (below).

And how they did. Here is my original review of Orfeo, the album they made together, but to reiterate: it’s a varied, lively and accomplished record. The musical whirlwind is present, but from the complex opening track (which features Martin Simpson on banjo) to the homely, warming harmony singing on Pretty Nancy, it’s all exquisitely arranged and played.

Crucially, Hield isn’t overpowered by her ensemble – far from it. Her voice is warm and strong, but her real skill is in interpretation and delivery. From her characterful telling of The Lover’s Ghost right through to the grim and gory finale of Naughty Baby (“Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you / Just as pussy tears a mouse”), she measures her performances perfectly. So while The Old ‘Arris Mill gets a saucy, charming delivery, The Cuckoo is imbued with a pure and clear tranquillity and Henry a haunting, ghostly quality. On this evidence, you suspect she’d make an excellent actress.

Dr Hield read for a PhD entitled ‘English Folk Singing and the Construction of Community’ last year, and uses her keen researcher’s eye to unearth some less familiar pieces. But that doesn’t make them any less worth listening to. So we get Wicked Serpent from Massachusetts, the magnificent 26-verse title track from a Breton lai, and Naughty Baby from The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. The latter’s tune borrows from the German national anthem (by way of the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue theme), but its raked nyckelharpa still sends a shiver up the spine. Each track, you feel, is thoroughly inhabited and understood by Hield and the Hurricanes. But this isn’t a dusty academic exercise: there’s a joyous lightness of touch that truly brings them to life.

It was a close-run thing this year – Sam Lee beautifully illustrated the magic of the oral tradition with the excellent Ground of its Own; Karine Polwart served up a thoughtful, luminous set of original songs on Traces, and Jim Moray delivered an inventive career best with the superb Skulk. But Hield and the Hurricane Party’s perfect storm just shades it – Orfeo is the Folk Witness album of 2012.

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