Whalebone, whom we know well at 1320Radio, are three folk instrumentalists who entertain with unabashed tunefulness and a blithe disregard of artifice and expectation. In many, ways their latest CD, Mirabilia almost defiantly celebrates the enduring charm of accessible melody that is delivered without the influence of prevailing norms. The ‘song’ element is offered up primarily through the crystal clarity of Sarah Ibberson’s fiddle playing, and clean-cut lines from Steve Downs’ acoustic and electric guitars. They are all bonnie tunes that are filled out by a strong rhythmic dynamic largely underpinned by Charlotte Watson on guitar and bouzouki.
A new Whalebone album is almost an annual event now, and that perhaps wouldn’t be so remarkable from such capable musicians were it not for the super-abundance original compositions. There are no less than thirteen new numbers on Mirabilia, and there isn’t a dud among them. Better still, they consistently come up with at least two are three that are visceral, memorable and compelling.
On this particular outing, Whalebone fans are made to wait until very bear the end of the record for the pastoral romanticism that is one of their greatest strengths. Floodplains is a very lovely piece with clear echoes of the English folksong repertoire re-imagined by composers such as Vaughn-Williams, Holst and Frederick Kelly. Lost Borders is a good example of the way that the modern mind absorbs different musical vocabularies, and articulates something singular and contemporary. It’s folk Jim, but not we as we know it, and Steve Downs’ Pure makes the case for feeling over the trappings of form.
Mirabilia evidently means a collection of wonders or miracles, and the record makes some clear etymological and musical connections with memorabilia as a serendipitous assimilation of the almost-lost and new-found. Yet, for all the declared and self-evident referencing of multiple musical styles, they have never made the mistake of throwing the ingredients together in a melange of motley ideas. There are Americana accents for sure, and Folk phrases, Classical refinements and Celtic origins, but none of that art is ruptured by their fondness for gentle incongruity. Bedrock opens as a fast, free-flowing, fiddle-led, quasi-trad travelogue before Downs jumps on the train with an impersonation of Carlos Santana squeezing his Les Paul like a lemon. It’s a juicy solo, but it’s also melodically consistent with the piece, and that is perhaps why it sounds much better than it might look on paper.
Whalebone are certainly prolific, but their standards are high and their credentials unassailable. Take your pick from the borderlands imagery of Hiraeth, the flighty Butterfly or an authentic memoir of the Chilterns in Chalk Heart. They are all quite different tunes that come from different places, but you will always know where you are. You will be in that wondrous place where collective memory, landscape, identity and ideas miraculously coalesce, and emerge like watercolours seeping through a washed canvas.