And so it is Christmas. Here’s what Burd Ellen have done: made a brilliant set of wintersongs from all across Britain that almost hovers in the air like an eerie snowglobe of sound. It begins with two minutes of buzzing drones, bowed cymbals, violin string scrapes, and distant murmurations of birdsong, setting a stage of pure ice and pitch blackness. Debbie Armour enters singing folk revival classic Please to See the King and when Gayle Brogan joins her in harmony, their Scottish voices mist together almost viscously.
Burd Ellen was once Armour alone, a singer who has collaborated with Scottish giants Alasdair Roberts and Frankie Armstrong. She explored women’s narratives in folk song on 2018 debut album, Silver Came. Brogan brings to the mix 20 years spent making unnerving electronic music as Pefkin (her recent anthology on Bandcamp, The Crows & Gossip Among the Leaves, comes highly recommended) plus a shivering zither and synthesisers (including the fittingly named Dark Energy).
Well-known songs have their lyrics highlighted in illuminating ways throughout. Coventry Carol’s tale of the “little tiny child” and Herod’s advance moves with a menacing slowness against a low, shuddering murmur. The metaphysical strangeness of the Corpus Christi Carol, revived by Jeff Buckley on 1994’s Grace, fittingly builds then distorts, before unwinding into a coda of piano and guitars that recalls Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock.
Softer moments do alleviate the terror: the a cappella Sans Day Carol from Cornwall is even sweet enough to accompany a Christmas morning’s buck’s fizz. Keep the convulsing black metal intro to Tàladh Chriosda (Christ’s Lullaby) for setting your brandy pudding alight, however.
Also out this month
Lizabett Russo’s While I Sit and Watch This Tree Volume 1 (Last Night from Glasgow) is a fantastic set of originals and Scottish folk song. A Romanian singer based in Glasgow (who counts Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke in her band), she has an astonishing high tender voice, and a keen eye for avant-garde melodic flourishes. Fans of Keeley Forsyth and Anna von Hausswolff: embrace this immediately. Robbie Basho’s Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes (Tompkins Square), comprises 54 unreleased recordings by the American primitive guitar pioneer. It’s riveting to hear him speaking and singing around his melding-together of Hindi, Native American and South Asian styles. Edgelarks’ Henry Martin (Dragonfly Roots) is their first full set of traditional material and their best album yet. Their version of southern traditional Locks and Bolts provides a particularly warm balm.