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This Edinburgh-based folk singer's previous album, Across The Troubled Wave, impressed me with the warmth and integrity of its approach, leaving me with a sense of the seriousness of his intent. That album, recorded in America, featured David singing other people's songs (including songs attributed to the "tradition") and there was a mix of Scots and American tunes, reflecting David's own mixed heritage. For this new album he has written (almost) all the material himself and returned to Scotland to record with a pretty stellar list of Scots folk musicians. Mattie Foulds produces, Steven Polwart, Adam Sutherland, Kevin McGuire and Kim Edgar grace the tunes with some warm and supple playing whilst the cello added by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's Su-a Lee lends a distinctive air to the album as a whole - the atmosphere frequently comes closer to folk song performed with chamber music than to what you might think of as a folk band. Plenty of folk music - in Scotland especially - has been recorded in this style but maybe it's not so prevalent as it once was.
All the qualities that were apparent on that earlier album are recaptured here, with the added bonus that that seriousness of purpose has been brought to bear on his songwriting. It's often said that you should write first about what you know best, and David's own life provides the bedrock on which this album is built. I'm an Immigrant (I'm From Here) deals with that mixed heritage mentioned earlier: Scots born and bred but with an American mother and an Italian grandfather, David is comfortable with his multiple identities, and clearly would like to live in a world where there weren't borders and passports to formalise that universal instinct to divide the world into "us" and "them". Other songs that are obviously personal deal with childhood experiences or with the ups and downs of relationships and he writes with a straightforward honesty. It's always reflective, at least half a step away from the acute emotions of the moment, but that suits the calm restraint of his vocal style.
In other songs he puts himself in another's shoes; sometimes this is to imagine the most personal difficulties as in the affecting Till Death Do Us Part where a wife is left with a husband whose mind has gone, who "sits all day beside the window, open-eyed lost in a dream". She wonders if she is a "widow or wife" and anybody who has seen such a situation will understand. Possibly the strongest song of all is Wildflowers, a definite contender for entering the folk tradition itself. Srebrenica is not identified by name, but it is almost certainly the massacre of some 8000 Muslims that David has in mind as he focuses on the bizarre and swift way in which a world where people work and play alongside each other, barely aware of religious and ethnic identity, can be torn apart by men of bloody intent.
Like the arrangements, David's voice is warm and unassumingly straightforward; he has a vibrato that puts me in mind, a little, of Rod Paterson, the great Scots folk singer. David uses that vibrato with restraint; it's there, adding depth and character to his singing, but he doesn't let it intrude on the business of telling the story he wants to tell. A part of David Ferrard's musical identity is that he's a political activist (Hey! A proper folk singer!) and this album's release coincides with the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. To mark the occasion, the album closes with David's take on Turn!Turn!Turn!. Pete Seeger's tune is used and some of the old words (lifted direct from Ecclesiastes) are there, too. David's additions deal with the melancholic truth that long after the war is declared over, the unexploded bombs and poisoned lands remain to blight the lives of those left to deal with the aftermath. And then, somebody invents another war to fight: "The war is over, but the wars carry on". It's a really good reinvention of the song, a passing of the protest baton to a new generation: just a shame that, as ever, there remains a need for the protest.
There is beauty, warmth and a serious thoughtfulness in David Ferrard's music making that adds up to a distinctive contribution to our world, and I believe Journeyman makes a big step towards him being recognised as a very significant folk musician.
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