Tune in, turn on, flash back
Sharron Kraus has a voice straight out of the 1960s-70s British folk revival. Squint your eyes a little, and her version of “Bruton Town” would fit right alongside Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span) singing “The Blacksmith”, or “Matty Groves”, as rendered by Sandy Denny (of Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and most of all, herself). Meg Baird, whose day job is as lead vocalist for Espers, possesses a somewhat huskier, less piercing voice, akin to Jacqui McPhee (Pentangle) or June Tabor.
The reason I’m dropping all these names is not to show off my knowledge, which is minimal anyway, but to express the idea that Leaves From Off the Tree feels somehow haunted by the spirits of singers past, and listening to it invites communion with ghosts. That idea feels somehow appropriate, given the violence and heartbreak that permeate the tunes. But it is also food for thought: Many of the nine songs on the disc (originally released in 2006) have been recorded by the singers listed above or others from the era, so it’s tough to shrug off what are, for many, the definitive version of songs like “Bruton Town”, “Willie of Winsbury”, and “False Sir John”.
Is that a fair comment, though? Maybe not. After all, these songs are timeless, telling fascinating stories of love, heartbreak, murder, abduction, and pain. In other words, life. Some of these ballads are hundreds of years old, originating in the British Isles and undergoing unexpected transformations in the U.S. (“The Dirty Dems of Arrow” turns “noble ploughboys” into “noble cowboys”.) They are, in the truest sense of the phrase, shared cultural history, held in common by anyone who cares to claim it. This is why they have lasted so long: They are the property of no single singer or band or even generation. Once that hurdle is overcome, the record can be enjoyed for what it is, which is a fine collection of well-sung songs.
Instrumentation remains simple throughout. Baird and Krauss play acoustic guitars, with tendencies toward simple finger-picking patterns; Helena Espvall’s cello adds sonic depth, a useful drone, and the occasional solo. All three women sing, which is where the emphasis rightfully lies. This is established early on, with an a capella version of “Barbry Ellen” lasting nearly six minutes. Flashy instrumental licks and “oh wow” moments are absent, although the guitar playing is quietly varied throughout—no dorm room strum-strum-strum for these musicians. Neither is there any of Espers’ psychadelic flash nor murky electronic thrash. This is music for people who want to pay attention to the singers as they weave stories that take the listener to a conclusion which may or may not (probably not) be a happy one.
Tempos are moderate, although the outlaw ballad “John Henry” chugs along nicely. Dynamics are equally temperate, with no howling vocals or crashing symbols, nor any quiet-loud-quiet gimmickry. The songs themselves are compelling enough: Album closer “False Sir John” tells the particularly delicious tale of a seducing villain who threatens to kill his betrothed—his seventh!—before finding the tables turned unexpectedly against him by a clever and resourceful heroine.
According to the band, the set was recorded live over the course of a single afternoon. The easy chemistry of the three musicians is apparent, and the mix is finely balanced, with vocals floating effortlessly over a rich bed of guitar and cello. In fact, “easy chemistry” just about sums up this agreeable, if not quite riveting, collection of songs.