In comparison to other styles of music, folk does not lend itself to analysis particularly well. Even if, like yours truly, you have grown up around folk, it can be hard to put to paper the emotions expressed in such music. While folk differs greatly from culture to culture, there are several universal traits that bind folk artists across time and space. Regardless of whether they play traditional songs or original compositions, folk singers and bands favour the simple: folk, as its name suggests, is the music of the people, and thus it should be easy to relate to. Ideally, folk elevates the mundane. As Andrey Pivovarov of the Siberian folk project Lesnoy Tanets put it:
“[Folk music] is an image of ourselves. [It] materialises during those odd moments that may occur while we simply work, live, love, and die.”
Folk wants to tell a story; it is music that is inextricably connected to the oral tradition, so when you sit down and recount its tales in written form to an erudite audience, some of its magic will inevitably be lost. Therefore, our review of Halfpence & Haypenny‘s To Hold a Candle to the Devil is to be seen as a personal account of music that has to be experienced (preferably accompanied by liberal amounts of ale and mead) rather than broken down in a meticulous study.
Halfpence & Haypenny is the banner under which Sage Arias and Eva Riihiluoma play both traditional songs and their own folk compositions. With eleven songs and a forty-six-minute running time, their creation, To Hold a Candle to the Devil, sees this American duo cover considerable ground. ‘Valley of Darkness’ inaugurates the album with elegant Americana, but any fear of a unipolar listening experience is immediately dispelled when songs such as ‘As I Roved Out’ and ‘King Henry’ display the band’s dedication to the traditional Irish and English influences that stood at the basis of the folk music of the New World. While it is their focal point, the artists do not restrict themselves to an Anglo-Saxon timbre: the instrumental ‘Causa pulchritudinis’ is, according to Arias and Riihiluoma, ‘influenced by classical guitar Romances and the Baroque harpsichord’. And indeed, it strongly reminds of Late Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque dance themes, as played on, for example, Stary Olsa‘s Drygula album.
In music, the line between versatility and chaos is particularly fine, and albums that try to do everything will often succumb under the weight of their creators’ ambitions. Fortunately, To Hold a Candle to the Devil is more than convincing as a fluent listening experience. The key in this is the consistently solid musicianship. No matter if it’s the mandola, the banjo, the bodhrán, or the good ol’ guitar, each instrument is handled excellently, which is less common than it should be in a genre whose accessibility invites amateurism and sloppiness. Riihiluoma’s singing, meanwhile, saturates all these string-based melodies with heartfelt narratives about those eternally recurrent, elemental themes of human existence: life, death, longing, and loss. In addition, the songs have been ordered in such a way that each composition flows logically into the next: starting with Americana, the album departs into Anglo-Saxon folk music, makes a brief stop in the Old Continent, and returns to English and Irish tunes before everything comes full circle with the traditional Appalachian composition in ‘Darlin’ Cora’. Together, this excellent pacing and the absence of noteworthy slip-ups help turn this collection of songs into a proper album: it is actually hard to listen to individual songs instead of just letting the disc play from start to finish.
While this album might not necessarily blow you away, this is scarcely the point of this style of music. The appeal of folk is more subtle, and it needn’t be magnificent to strike a chord with the listener. Halfpence & Haypenny absolutely succeed in doing the latter, as they provide a collection of songs that so many people will be able to identify with in one way or another; with their oeuvre spanning centuries worth of geographically diverse musical influences, Halfpence & Haypenny demonstrate the continuity between European and North-American musical traditions. Perhaps the greatest achievement of To Hold a Candle to the Devil is that, in spite of this large amount of variation, the album never feels disjointed; it presents the musical range of the artists in a natural, unpretentious manner. The result is a seamless listening experience that keeps you ignorant of how far and how long you have travelled until the journey is over.
Now all you need to do, dear reader, is go and listen to this album, as it is imbued with the magic of simple human life in a way that my many words could never replicate.
01) Valley of Darkness
02) Rattlin’ Bones
03) As I Roved Out
04) Touch of the Fae
05) King Henry
06) Causa pulchritudinis
07) Child Grove
08) House Carpenter
09) Curtain Fall
10) Ferryman’s Daughter – Ruh Mhuire Mac do Dhia
11) Darlin’ Cora