'Dwelling by the Weir' by Ellie GowersReview
And so at long last I am able to review Ellie Gower's new album ‘Dwelling By The Weir' which is released today for you.
You'll all have heard three songs from the collection which have been released as singles already ("Ribbon Weaver", "Woman of the Waterways" and "Brightest Moon") and if you've been fortunate enough to catch her live recently (or performing on the radio), then others may also be familiar to you.
These songs have been central to Ellie's musical world for many moons now & finally the world can share them all.
In fact it's a sort of concept album to some degree. In a slightly paradoxical fashion, at the moment when Ellie has ceased to be a purely local musician but works and has an audience on a national basis (for which I heartily congratulate her), she has focused on her Warwickshire roots & spent a long time carrying out her own painstaking fieldwork research in the true folk tradition to touch base with folklore of the county & above all, the unsung working lives which are vanishing or vanished from all the but the memories of the surviving & elderly final generation of practitioners.
This accounts for "Ribbon Weaver" and "Woman of the Waterways" and now they are joined by the likes of "The Last Warwickshire Miner". Looking at living your life beyond just your occupation, we have an account of the bombing of Kenilworth in "Brightest Moon" (you'd need to be over 90 to have first hand memories of that) and it's not just people captured: "Poor Old Horse" has his story told too.
Ellie also plunges deeper into the past for the title track & zooms up to today for "Waking up to Stone" (I'm fairly sure that this one is the track on the album which I first heard her play live), so the sweep of local history (her grandmother Sylvia is credited on the sleeve for instilling a love of this into Ellie) is laid out before you in one collection.
The first thing which will strike any Ellie fan listening to ‘Dwelling By The Weir' is the sound she has gone for. She is of course gaining wide fame in the folk field, but nevertheless with a run of tracks which could loosely be grouped as meditations on the modern world & its ills (for example "Against The Tide" or "The Sky is on Fire"), in her anticipation of ecological & societal apocalypse, she had adopted suitably ominous & dense arrangements: typically very full & with electric instrumentation in there. Now, dipping back into the past for the most part, she has literally gone back to her roots with more spacious, acoustic and traditional folk arrangements, aided by Lukas Drinkwater on bass, Josh Clark on drums, Seth Bye on strings and accordion plus Ewan Cameron on whistle & clarinet (Ellie handles the guitars & piano herself). Josh also recorded & mixed the album & I congratulate him on the crystalline clarity which serves the songs so well.
Unsurprisingly with performers of this quality, the music is far above my criticism: not just technically perfect but played with those qualities we have come to associate with Ellie: tasteful restraint rather than grandstanding, a looseness of feel & sense of spontaneity which can only have come through playing them together many times & that intimacy of delivery which draws you close into the heart of the song.
Equally I really can't indulge in critique of the lyrics nor the tunes (though I should be remiss if I didn't point out that "The Last Warwickshire Miner" is in fact a setting by Ellie to the tune of "Wayfaring Stranger" of words by Pete Grassby: kudos to Ellie though for finding and arranging it as it fits so well into the scheme of things here) which are vintage Ellie Gowers: the lightest of touches being applied to serious subjects and plenty of opportunity to imbibe her words & make sense of them while each song progresses. The melodies simply draw you in.
As with all good folk music, the album sounds in many ways like it could have been composed, played & recorded in many eras, so timeless is it, yet without the hoary imposition of insincere pseudo-historical pastiche which is such a trap for folk musicians. Songs like "This Ground", the opening instrumental "Introduction" and the mid-album "Instrumental" defy time specificity while the others either concern the twenty first century or are clearly written from the perspective of our times: "The Last Warwickshire Miner" for example would have made no sense fifty years ago, nor "Brightest Moon" before 1940, whatever the tunes sound like. In that way, Ellie breathes new life into the genre.
Beyond these general themes, Ellie delves productively into other areas of personal interest beyond local history. Her love of horses is reflected in "Poor Old Horse" manages, in the way excellent writers do, to cover much more ground than the deceptively simple first impression might give: taking the real 38 year old horse (Thomas) Ellie knows and a song collected by Cecil Sharp in Ilmington a century or more ago as starting points, it then evolves into meditations on self-pity (both equine & human) and the fragility of old age.
If "Against The Tide" and "The Sky is on Fire" epitomised Ellie's anger & fear about our world, then these are not concerns she has left behind: "Waking Up To Stone" tears into the destruction of parts of Warwickshire (including ones where she played as a child) by HS2 with all the quiet, determined & articulate passion of those earlier songs, and if the sound is a different one, the commitment is in no way thereby diminished: quite the opposite. As Maya Angelou said "bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean" and Ellie's anger hopefully has that power of catharsis within it.
"A Letter to the Dead Husband of Mary Ball" has the longest title on the album and though another tale from Warwickshire's past, has a different hue. Not here the story of hard working folk from among many, but the specific one of a single individual facing the gallows and not even in private, but before a Coventry crowd of 20,000 on 9th August 1849: the city's last public execution and last one of a woman. A morally far from simple tale, Mary (a Nuneaton housewife) may or may not have poisoned her abusive husband and in fact the jury initially recommended mercy, though they did find her guilty. The judge however over ruled them & sentenced her to death. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, Ellie finds considerable compassion not so much for the legal victim but the ostensible culprit. Gently stating her sad case in character again (the actual Mary said "my husband was in the habit of going with other women and used me so ill-no one knows how I have suffered"), she chastises him for his cruelties and behaviours in a way which cuts straight through the legal record to challenge our reading of it: one would like to think that an abusive marriage in 2022 would result in the incarceration of the instigator (and I'm sure most of you reading this would have as many doubts as I do: or I imagine Ellie does, that justice works much better these days in these matters. I assume the parallel was in her mind as she wrote it).
The album closes with "This Ground" which I suppose is a summation of her philosophy as regards the whole record: a song which reflects the arc of someone, rather like herself perhaps, who flies off into the wider world yet that goes not preclude a return home from time to time to ground, rediscover your roots and recollect that "here is where my heart was crafted". (In fact the title of the album is a translation of the Saxon name "Warwick" and the title track itself acts as the opposite bookend to the whole with "This Ground" being a semi-reverie around reconnecting with her home area & its story. Together the pair are the two most emotional subtle & adroit on the album so really deserve your attention).
‘Dwelling By The Weir' is a tour de force from Ellie, a superb album which captures for permanent record her talent & why she is held in such esteem. It's difficult for me to remember sometimes that this is actually her debut album and that many of her previous EPs and singles which I so praised in these pages were created before she became a professional: to me it's a natural progression but for very many others it will mark the first they may have heard from her. I can only hope they take time, once they've heard these songs, to explore her back catalogue too.
As you will expect, it is a beautiful record: much comes from Ellie's skills, experience & training. Even more probably from her innate sensibilities & tastes. Some of the beauty comes, like it did for Wilfred Owen, from pity which gives it that special edge, other parts from her compassion, empathy & humanity. These songs should be resonating in a hundred years' time.
And finally, if you've been enjoying the cover art for the preceding singles by Nina Bailey of Clemency Creatives, then you'll be able to see the full version in all its glory on the album sleeve.