Red Hook Rapids is the duo that was born during the recording of Ally MacLeod's wonderful solo album, Astor Place. I guess it was their shared devotion to a particular strand of American music that brought them together and resulted in this, their first album. It’s a hybrid of British and American music that is unique to these guys, their folk voices fusing with some country-influenced stylings and a romantic fascination with American landscapes. This being their first album together, it’s maybe not surprising that it feels like we have two halves that haven’t quite meshed yet. Only one of the twelve songs is a co-write; Donald Forbes contributes six and Ally MacLeod has five of her own songs. The fact that they resisted the temptation to include even a single cover is testament to their justifiable faith in their own material.
With Donald Forbes sitting in the engineer’s chair, playing lead guitar and taking the lead vocal on his own songs, his part in this project is pretty immense; I have to say that his guitar playing and arrangements bring a surprising amount of beef to songs that originate in an acoustic duo format. Sometimes, as on his own song Thanxalot, nothing much is added to the core sound but the fuller arrangements to be found on songs like Miss Fortune and Tennessee Bound sound really good. Drumming that is sensitive to the vibe of the song, some beautiful electric guitar and fine fiddling from Pete Robertson all make for a production job that sounds just right.
There is a strong contrast between the two voices here; whilst Donald’s voice has a slightly keening folk quality to it, Ally’s is warm, authoritative and immensely strong. Sometimes the juxtaposition can seem a little jarring and on their one co-write, Holding My Breath, they’ve worked hard on finding a way to mesh their voices together as they weave together around the melody. It’s a really beautiful, romantic song - it sounds like something Kiki Dee might have recorded around the time of Amoreuse – and you can hear that they’re getting close to something really good. To an extent it seems they’ve played around on this record, just for the fun of it, and all sorts of influences and echoes pop up. I’m not at all keen on the reggae-lite of Doesn’t Mean a Ting, but the guitar-picking that drives along IDAHAT is great fun, and the guitar-twang echo on Demons hints at a new genre, rockabilly-noir.
As on Astor Place however, Ally MacLeod’s singing stands out a country mile as one of the most astonishing things you’ll ever hear. As the old saw goes, she could sing the phone directory and make it sound good, because she brings richness of meaning to every phrase she sings. Whether she’s singing something that could be intensely personal (Demons) or one of her trips through the America of her memory/imagination, you believe every word like it’s come down from the mountain on tablets of stone. And when she cuts loose and really delivers the power in that voice, well… just check out the closing lines of Fortune Cookie. The power develops as the song progresses and there is just so much in that one long note when she’s going to “put the woorrrld to rights”, it’ll take your breath away. At the moment, it’s a tie between this song and Out of the Dark as my favourite on the album. Whereas Fortune Cookie features Ally’s singing at its most thrilling, Out of the Dark is a really powerful song, featuring a richly eloquent guitar accompaniment from Donald Forbes.
You feel that these guys are like a spring that’s been coiled for a long time and that finally they have a chance to put all that pent-up musical energy down on disc. Long may they run…
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