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The Jellyman's Daughter: Dead Reckoning
by George Graham
(Independent As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/10/2018)
Back in 1996, a young singer-songwriter who grew up in Los Angeles, with parents who worked in show biz, was drawn to the sound of traditional Appalachian music, appeared with a debut album that turned out to be very influential. Gillian Welch’s Revival, made with her musical partner David Rawlings in the midst of the 1990s grunge scene, sparked an interest in traditional sounding folk, performed in a stripped down musical setting. Since then, there has been a steady stream of artists who turn to a minimalist folk setting, many as similar male-female duos. In the last couple of years, there has been an uptick in the appearance of such groups often in a duo setting, including the duo of Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, The Lark and the Loon, Oliver the Crow, and Courtney Hartman & Taylor Ashton to name a few. This week we have another folky duo, influenced by American traditional folk, though this one is from the other side of the Atlantic, from Scotland, to be specific. They call themselves The Jellyman’s Daughter, and their new second album is titled Dead Reckoning.
The Jellyman’s Daughter are Emily Kelly and Graham Coe, who met in Edinburgh in 2011. They found that they enjoyed making music together and started creating home recordings. They released their debut album in 2014. Ms. Kelly plays mandolin and guitar, and does the majority of the lead vocals, and Coe’s main instrument is a cello, though he also plays mandolin, banjo and keyboards. Coe and Ms. Kelly have a similar vocal range and sometimes it’s hard to tell who is singing, so their vocal harmonies can be very tight.
After the release of their debut album, they began to attract attention, winning an award for best acoustic act in the Scottish Alternative Music awards, and toured extensively in Europe and North America.
Now, four years after their debut release, they are out with Dead Reckoning, which is a more ambitious record, in that it features the extensive use of a 16-piece string orchestra, and yet it still sounds like intimate folk music, with bluegrass instruments like mandolin, fiddle and banjo never far from the musical focus. The compositions can be very melodic and sometimes beautifully melancholy.
This album features a more or less regular band, including banjo player Jamey Francis, acoustic bassist Paul Gilbody and fiddle player Toby Shaer. Co-leader Graham Coe wrote the string arrangements, which were conducted by Scottish composer and vocalist Luci Holland. But as mentioned, the orchestrations are subtle but highly effective, without it sounding like some kind of big production. The album manages to keep a traditional folk aura.
The original compositions are often a little cryptic lyrically, but ultimately touch on age-old topics, along with a couple of songs which consider the state of the world.
Opening the album is a piece called Quiet Movie, which epitomizes the interesting dichotomy between the folky mandolin and the string orchestra. The piece also highlights the duo’s excellent vocal harmonies. <<>> After the folky start, the full orchestra kicks in. <<>>
More upbeat in sound is I Hope with a bluegrassy banjo in the context of what is essentially a pop song. <<>>
A track called Oh Boy is interesting and multifaceted. The lyrics are a kind of lullaby, while the orchestra and the banjo provide a kind of edgy sound. <<>>
The title song Dead Reckoning shows some influence from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in terms of the vocal harmonies, but then the string orchestra comes in, something one would never hear on a Gillian Welch album. However, the orchestrations are excellent and end up fitting very well with the mood of the song. <<>>
Also with a melancholy sound is The Worst of It All showing the Jellyman’s Daughter’s Appalachian influence with the banjo and fiddle. <<>>
The album contains one instrumental called The Shoogly Peg which is a kind of quirky bluegrass tune, reminiscent of Chris Thile’s group The Punch Brothers. <<>>
Contrasting with that is the following track Cry Cry Darling, a sad waltz which eventually brings in the instrumentation of a bluegrass band. <<>>
The album ends with another of its highlights White Shadows which seems to be a consideration of the deteriorating state of the world. It also shows their skill in combining the intimate duo setting with Ms. Kelly’s mandolin and Coe’s cello before the string orchestra makes its subtle appearance, playing Coe’s excellent arrangement. <<>>
Dead Reckoning, the new second album by the Scottish duo The Jellyman’s Daughter is a thoroughly excellent project that brings together in a very creative way some seemingly disparate ingredients. The group is from Scotland, but their music is rooted in Appalachian folk, perhaps filtered through the influence of Gillian Welch. The duo’s sound is intimate, based on Emily Kelly’s mandolin and Graham Coe’s cello, but a string orchestra appears frequently with arrangements by Coe, that suprisingly do not distract from the sound of the record. The songwriting, especially melodically, is first rate and the duo’s vocal harmonies are another great strength.
For our audio quality, we’ll the give the album a rare grade “A.” The sound is pleasingly clean and warm, the mix nicely captures the subtlety going on with the music including the dichotomy between the string orchestra and the small folky group. And the vocal harmonies very nicely captured. Notably, the recording also has some decent dynamic range which has become almost an endangered species on the current music scene.
The Jellyman’s Daughter from Scotland has created an impressive album based on influences from Appalachian folk on the other side of the Atlantic with a healthy dose of eclecticism.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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