Words by Julian May
I hesitate to begin a review with the CD cover and the sleeve notes but two details here are key to Sam Lee’s extraordinary and wonderful debut album. On the lyrics booklet he quotes Ovid: ‘Laudamus veteres, sed nostris utimur annis’ (We praise the good old times but live today); and, on the cover itself, more straightforwardly, writes, ‘Dedicated to Stanley Robertson’. Robertson was the great storyteller and ballad singer of the travelling people of north-east Scotland. Lee spent years with him, learning his repertoire and how to sing it. He does so beautifully, in fulsome Gypsy style, confidently embellishing and wandering around the melody – at times sounding almost like a soul singer. Lee gained insight, understanding of the dramatic power of songs such as a transported convict’s ‘Goodbye My Darling’, the abandoned lover’s ‘Wildwood Amber’, and ’Northlands’, a monumental ballad of betrayal.
To these old songs he brings the contemporary sensibility and musicality that the Ovid quote also implies. He samples from a recording made in 1919, the sounds of nightingales and a tune from Dagestan. The arrangements, several expertly realised by producer Gerry Diver (whose recent innovative work includes The Speech Project and Lisa Knapp’s EP of May songs, Hunt the Hare), include simple Jew’s harps and gas canister percussion, as well as sophisticated trumpet and cello, the sinister drone of the shruti box and the ghostly stutter of the hammer dulcimer. All conspire with his assured delivery of the lyrics to create for each song its own sound world.