Grey, ominous clouds fill the sky on the front cover of Lady Maisery’s second album, the portentously titled Mayday. A colourful, friendly cityscape looks set to take a battering from the gathering storm.
If that weren’t warning enough, the first track is Sydney Carter’s anti-war song The Crow on the Cradle, which melds Cold War paranoia with the vulnerable imagery of nursery rhymes. A wheezing, clicking intro gives way to a box-drone and chilling lines like “Hush-a-bye little one, never you weep / For we’ve got a toy that’ll put you to sleep”. It’s a stark opening to an album that deals head-on with some pretty big issues: power, gender, inequality, motherhood and freedom.
Since the release of their debut, 2011’s Weave & Spin, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans and Hannah James have got to know one another rather better (as they explain in their video, below). This explains the more tightly focused, politicised nature of this follow-up, but also the development of the group’s flair for musical interplay and ingenious arrangement.
The pretty, mellifluous three-part harmonies are still present, of course. They are put to use on a solemn reading of Leon Rosselson’s blunt Palaces of Gold, traditional warning song Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and a beautiful rendition of This Woman’s Work, by Kate Bush (which was released as a single earlier this year, in support of End Violence Against Women).
It’s interesting to hear the trio tackling the song that inspired their name – and the outstandingly bleak story of Lady Maisry fits in with the theme of the album. Lady Maisery sing it in unison at a lively pace, with no harmonies to distract from the grim, absorbing narrative.
Katy Cruel is another story of a sinned-against woman; fiddle and ankle-bells build the tension as the song races to its conclusion, while percussion also subtly drives The Lady and the Blacksmith: James’ boot and the trio’s handclaps add a soulful flavour to the smartly delivered, shape-shifting tale.
Alongside the opening track, The Grey Selkie is one of the album’s more ambitious musical arrangements. Rheingans’ fiddle and Askew’s harp provide an appropriately magical introduction to a story about a ‘selkie’ – a seal that sheds its skin and briefly becomes a man (and fathers a child), before returning to the sea. It’s a myth borne of kindness, and the accompanying story is sung here with a heartbreaking tenderness.
But for all the grey skies, the album is far from gloomy – Mayday is, after all, a celebration too. The Factory Girl, propelled by James’ clogging, is a joyous celebration of independence – and a smartly arranged one at that. And the record’s only tune set, Constant Billy/The Lie of the Land, celebrates the morris dancing/Mayday tradition. The harmonies are precise, intoxicating and sweetly sung – it’s hard to resist diddling along.
Mayday is an album of thoughtfully arranged feminist folk, which gracefully illustrates the continuing relevance of the songs it contains. It’s dramatic, complex, affecting and exciting – a realisation of potential that underlines Lady Maisery’s status as one of the most exciting groups on the folk scene today.
Mayday is out now on Rootbeat Records