It’s remarkable to think that, for all their work together in family band Waterson:Carthy, Martin and Eliza Carthy had never before released an album together. They addressed this in 2014 with The Moral of the Elephant – an LP assembled in intense ‘hothouse’ sessions – two songs a day, arranged, practiced, recorded: done.
It’s a confident approach: two voices, one guitar, one fiddle, no special guests and a quick-fire approach to getting the songs done, in order that they might retain their freshness. And there’s something about the no-frills, purist approach that invites the listener to lean in a little. It’s a warm (thanks in no small part to Oliver Knight’s production) and engaging record.
Opener Her Servant Man sets the tone: Martin’s distinctive, deliberate-yet-delicate guitar picking and earthy voice kick off a tale of forbidden love. Eliza’s vivacious fiddle soon joins the mix, adding notes of charm and romance that build the song into more than the sum of its parts. And the simple formula never gets dull. Guitar and fiddle seem to dance during the introduction to the cheery Blackwell Merry Night, before the duo stop playing and allow their voices to do the same thing.
Most of the songs are traditional, and while many will sound familiar, versions and arrangements are new. Waking Dreams – a thoughtful take on Awake Awake that intriguingly addresses the song’s subject as a “traitor” (instead of “sleeper”) is one highlight, while The Queen of Hearts – shot through with dramatic guitar and harmony – is another. The masterful Grand Conversation on Napoleon ebbs and flows absorbingly, addressing Boney’s broken heart as much as his political failure. Martin’s spoken outro is loaded with gravitas.
The album’s non-traditional songs are excellent, too. Monkey Hair, written by Michael Marra, and Happiness, an apparently lost classic from the pen of Molly Drake, are both simply (that word again) stunning. Has Eliza’s voice ever sounded better? You can listen for yourself, below…
Indeed, both father and daughter are on top form with voice and instrument. Martin’s vocal performance on Queen Caraboo is top class, while Eliza’s fiddling is assured and inventive. On Bonny Moorhen it is light, bright and exquisitely divergent, while on The Elephant it is deep and mournful, as if she is sawing into the very soul of the instrument.
Talk of ‘folk royalty’ or ‘folk’s first family’ has always seemed antithetical to the genre to me (and Martin will modestly point in the direction of the Coppers if the matter is raised), but the epithet exists for a reason: Martin and Eliza Carthy (not to mention Norma Waterson, whose collaboration with her daughter on 2010’s Gift album is another must-hear) are outstandingly talented. The Moral of the Elephant is both deeply complex and uncomplicatedly beautiful – and it’s the Folk Witness album of the year 2014.