Published on February 27th, 2018 | by Mike Ainscoe0
The Company Of Players: Shakespeare Songs – album review
THE COMPANY OF PLAYERS
“Songs of love, loss, death and magic inspired by William Shakespeare.”
Here’s an album we’ve been sitting on since its release at the end of January from a collective made up of many names with whom we’re very familiar. Coming together to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death and celebrate his life and works, Sam Kelly, Kelly Oliver, Lukas Drinkwater, Kim Lowings , Daria Kulesh, Chris Cleverley, Minnie Birch and the Said The Maiden trio including Jess Distill who’s the main instigator and Shakespeare enthusiast, make up what inevitably becomes labelled as the good old fashioned supergroup.
And there they all are gracing the cover decked out in suitably Shakesperian garb, props including crown and a skull while some rely on elfin face paint and Lukas Drinkwater sheepishly displays a bottle of wine. Not being a student of Shakespeare (despite an affinity for Macbeth and an almost encyclopaedic recall of ‘King Lear’ and to a lesser extent ‘Measure For Measure’ due to A level Eng Lit) I couldn’t suggest it’s place although there must be plenty of wine dotted throughout his work. Sam Kelly too is looking way too good in make up with his blue wode a cross between one of Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band and Michael Stipe.
Anyway. In the grand tradition of similarly folk styled gatherings, the Cecil Sharp Project and Elizabethan Sessions, The Full English and more, the troupe gathered together for a songwriting week in a big house in Derbyshire. A set of 14 songs were whittled down to 11 (including a mysterious bonus track if you’re lucky) , subsequently recorded down in Cornwall with Sam Kelly doing the tech duties.
Aptly it’s the three Said The Maidens kicking off ‘Black Spirits’, the words taken from the famous three witches parts in ‘Macbeth’ while a total of seven vocalists (occasionally becoming a whole as ‘the company’) adding a rich vocal depth. It’s the impact of multi voice harmonies that plays a major part on the album and while being very much the sum of its parts, each part gets a stint in the limelight.
Not always doing the more obvious by directly referencing Shakespeare’s work as they do on the opening track and as Daria Kulesh does to an extent with her signature Russian flavoured and hauntingly dark ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk’, there are references to a broad range of themes. Contemporary issues are addressed – the plight of refugees, mental illness and gender roles all feature in the same way as some did back in Shakespeare’s work, alongside some of the more magical and mystical fragments. Have fun unpicking where the influences lie although some may be more obvious than others; even I got the ‘Black Spirits’ lyric…
There are some lovely understated songs here. Kim Lowings’ ‘Gather Round’ and Chris Cleverley’s ‘But Thinking Makes It So’ both are gentle and carefully crafted offerings while Kelly Oliver too comes up trumps with a gorgeous ‘You Must Needs Be Strangers’ with some help from Sam Kelly sounding more like his reflective Changing Room rather than more boisterous Lost Boys persona. Possibly the ‘worth the price of the album alone’ moment. Bit of credit though to Old William for the words of verses.
Anyone expecting a more overtly folky flavour to go with the Shakespearean bent has to wait until almost the end of the album for a hey nonino (aka hey nonny no), as Hannah Elizabeth from StM mines ‘As You Like It’ for a splendidly acoustic guitar/mandolin/banjo acoustic string band backed arrangement of ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Possibly even challenging Kelly O for the pick of the album. Maybe the image of Kelly with the blood stained dagger (hopefully nothing was harmed during the making of this record) edges it over Hannah’s flowers in the hair sylphlike look.
A right old swing your pants hoedown ‘Method On The Madness’ emphasises the musical traditions that the group are dialling into. The diversity ranges from simple fingerpicked guitar to more complex string and woodwind arrangements and wherever Daria Kulesh goes, there’s sure to be a dulcimer involved. All goes to prove that, 400 years in the making, some things are worth the wait.
Watch a live performance of ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’ here:
Find out more via the link on the StM website here: