Firm favourites here at Blabber’n’Smoke Cahalen Morrison & Eli West don’t disappoint with their third release, I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands. Their previous discs, The Holy Coming of The Storm and Our Lady of The Tall Trees are two of our favourite albums of the past three years inspiring quotes such as “They write songs that sound as if they have been disinterred from dusty archives” and “tales as strong as an Oak with language that seems to be hewn from ancient timber.” I’ll swing My Hammer With Both Hands continues in this vein although first impressions are of a less bare boned approach on some songs with producer Tim O’Brien adding his mandolin and bouzouki to the duo’s sound along with bassist Erin Youngblood while fiddle is added by Ryan Drickey (who appeared on The Holy Coming Of The Storm) and Brittany Haas. This string band approach allows them the opportunity to have a full blown hoedown on Living In America that Bill Monroe could have been proud of while Natural Thing To Do is an excellent old time country ballad with forlorn fiddles adding a fine Hickory touch to the wearied words. The fiddle returns for the dramatic Sinner Come Home, a fire and brimstone sermon with apocalyptic imagery. Surprisingly there’s no fiddle on the opening song, Fiddlehead Fern, just the sweet interplay between Morrison and West, complementing each other perfectly and harmonising as only they can do, voices rough hewn yet beautiful. The fiddlehead fern referred to in the title is indeed a young fern shoot, cooked, somewhat like Asparagus, in parts of North America. However at the end of the album there is an instrumental reprise of the song which does indeed feature a fiddle so no need to feel short changed.
The bulk of the album allows Morrison and West to appear as they do live, Morrison playing banjo, mandolin bouzouki and Dobro, West on guitar and bouzouki (although O’Brien does beef up the sound on a few songs), with Morrison writing the songs . Again Morrison seems able to conjure up songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a scratchy 78 as Pocket Full Of Dust uses depression era language to describe a lovelorn loner while his lyrics paint vivid pictures such as ” My love’s a sparrow, she weaves a blazing thread. She flies in crimson when the sky is burning red. She sharpens like an arrow as the evening turns to rust.” James Is Out is a pleasure to listen to as their deceptively simple sounding guitar and banjo ramble and pluck while they sing a childlike vision of a rural family forced to cope on their own with a fierce family pride refusing to accept that poverty might be an issue. Down In The Lonesome Draw stands as the centrepiece of the album, a sepia toned portrait of the westward expansion, not so much Go West Young Man than the trials and tribulations of the settlers, burnt by the sun and with the promised land always one more town away, “Here’s to the great expanse, where everything is a poisonous dance.”
There are three cover songs included. H.W. Vanhoose’s Going To Live In Green Pastures ( familiar perhaps to fans of Emmylou Harris) is a fine gospel outing that allows Morrison and West to showcase their harmony singing, more so in their version of the Louvin Brothers’ Lorene as the duo are surely indebted to the Louvin’s (with the debt fully paid here). Voices of Evening comes from the pen of Alice Gerrard, another singer who drinks from the old time well. A funeral dirge to the departed it sounds as if it were recorded in a sylvan cathedral as the departed’s soul goes heavenward. Even a confirmed atheist could consider this for their own last calling card.
Suffice to say that I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands is another triumph for Morrison and West. Often the PR blurbs that accompany album releases are sheer hyperbole but one instance in the one sheet that came with this speaks volumes. “An effort to touch the unknown with eyes closed and fingers wrapped around the neck of your instrument and voices raised in beautiful harmony.” Well put. Finally it’s worthwhile noting that the packaging of the CD is handsome indeed for all of those pondering if a download would suffice.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West are touring the UK from April 30th. Dates below.
Wed Apr 30: The Garret Sessions at Queens Head, Fyfield, Essex
Thur May 1: The Green Note, London
Fri May 2: The Workhouse, Presteigne, Powys, Mid Wales
Sat May 3: The Walker Theatre (Theatre Severn), Shrewsbury
Sun May 4: The Cross Inn, Haverfordwest, Pembs
Tues May 6: Red Rooms, Cookstown
Wed May 7: Balor Arts Centre, Ballybofey, Co Donegal
Thur May 8: Whelan’s, Dublin
Fri May 9: Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Co Cork, Ireland
Sun May 11: Caedmon Hall, Gateshead
Mon May 12: Church on the Green, Denholm
Tues May 13: House concert, Edinburgh
Wed May 14: House concert, Edinburgh
Thur May 15: Acoustic Music Club, Kirkcaldy
Fri May 16: Glenbuchat Village Hall, Aberdeenshire
Sat May 17: The CatStrand, New Galloway
Sun May 18: The Barrels Alehouse, Berwick-upon-Tweed