The Horse’s Ha, Of the Cathmawr Yards (Hidden Agenda)
Fusing jazz and folk is an old trick, practiced by everyone from Joni Mitchell to Tim Buckley to Van Morrison to Joanna Newsome. It’s usually done by abandoning strict structure and songwriting, resulting in a drifting ambience, lovely but somewhat formless, as the singer embellishes and the music drifts along in the wake of the vocal line.
James Elkington and Janet Beveridge Bean of the Horse’s Ha have taken another tack. With nods to British folkies like the Incredible String Band and Pentangle, their songs don’t wander from urban to rural and back, but instead are carefully balanced between the two. The tracks on Of the Cathmawr Yards sound like somebody went to a lot of trouble to build, operate, and market a cabaret far out in an abandoned windswept hollow. That’s almost the plot of “Asleep in a Waterfall”—“And I live on my spitefulness/a shipwrecked diva feasting on a fly/ All asleep in a waterfall.” Some sophisticate dreams unpleasant dreams in the forest, and the music is half jazzy bassline, half folk strum, until, in the chorus, sweet vocal harmonies fracture into a gentle dissonance. “Left Hand” is essentially a bossa-nova track, complete with plaintive trumpet solo, though Elkington’s plainspoken singing still adds a touch of earthiness to the mix. “Tea Creek in the Dunes” is paced like a dirgy British ballad, but Bean’s vocals, floating above Elkington’s, are a mix of pure mountain yodel and breathy torch-song variation. “The zeppelins slide through the night sky like slovenly sows,” they sing, and it makes perfect sense; this is definitely a band that sees European airships when it looks at rural livestock, and vice versa.