(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Revolving Doris (great name that) is a British alternative folk (for want of a better genre description) duo from the UK. Alt. folk is such a broad and potentially meaningless term but it certainly applies to the Dorises who mix traditional instruments and classic folk tunes with electronica, modern arrangements and contemporary issues. And I rather like one description of the duo offered by radio DJ, Paul Baker: “Canterbury Folk Prog Electronic”. Yeah, that pretty much covers all the bases.
Revolving Doris consists of singer/multi-instrumentalist Rebsie Fairholm and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist William Shaw, who met over the Internet and produce their music almost entirely online. This five-track EP is their first official release and it’s a great indication of their sound, offering a couple of classic folk songs done in a rather contemporary fashion, plus three of William’s compositions.
Before I go on to talk about the tracks on the EP I feel I should make my obligatory, and some might say desperate, attempt to say what Revolving Doris actually sound like, on the whole. It’s an original sound, undoubtedly folky for the most part, but the focus on mandolins rather than guitars makes it stand out from much of the usual folk music… and, for that matter, most of the usual pop and rock music that comes out of the UK. The mixture of traditional folk music, a more modern edge and electronica is broadly reminiscent of what artists like Eliza Carthy and Jah Wobble have been experimenting with over the last few years.
Rebsie’s vocals are another key part of the Revolving Doris sound, described quite rightly elsewhere as being dark and ethereal, which is often in keeping with the duo’s music and/or lyrics – there are often themes of death, impending death, ghosts, the supernatural, the darker side of life generally, and, did I mention death? But that might lead you to think that Revolving Doris are some sort of Goth band… and Goths they most certainly are not, though gothic is a word you might occasionally apply to their sound.
And back to Rebsie’s vocals… well, I wouldn’t say there are many singers you can compare her to but that’s not stopped some people – Loreena McKennitt and a lower-pitched Kate Bush are a couple of suggestions. With no offence meant to anyone, I can’t really hear either of them in Rebsie, though I have noted more than a passing similarity to the vocals of the recent comeback queen of British folk, Vashti Bunyan. Apparently any similarity is purely coincidental as Rebsie hadn’t even heard of Vashti until a few months back, but if you enjoyed Lookaftering in 2005 then I think you’ll appreciate the vocals on Imber.
And now, at last, onto the tracks: Imber opens in spectacular fashion with that old folk tune “The Unquiet Grave”. My previous familiarity with this song comes from the amazing Gryphon version that appears on their debut album and I’ve always regarded that as the definitive take on the track. But along come Revolving Doris and cause me to think again. At just over seven minutes this is the longest track on the EP and, partly because of the Gryphon connection, the one with the most obvious prog rock connection. But the Dorises have very wisely gone for their own take on things, without betraying what Gryphon brought to the song. The combination of electronic beats and drones, Rebsie’s ghostly vocals, and William’s atmospheric use of mandolin work remarkably well, creating something akin to prog folktronica, if such a thing exists. And the duet of fiddle and mandolin that ends the track is an undoubted masterstroke.
We’re on to something lighter with the second track, musically at least if not lyrically. After laying to rest the ghost of a medieval lover we’re bang up to date with one of William’s compositions. William has a flair for writing modern-day folk tales, vignettes on the lives of people living in the UK today, and that’s what we get with “Man Next Door”, an everyday story of rotten blokes, single parents, and unrequited love. It’s not an upbeat story but you wouldn’t know it from the catchiness of this song… just try not singing along to the lyric “Let’s all jump in the water and die”! It’s testament to William’s ability as a songwriter that he’s able to make this bittersweet number truly bitter and sweet at the same time.
But better yet is the second of William’s writing contributions, “Rebsie’s SOS”, a track that has a real epic feel to it despite it clocking in at less than five-and-a-half minutes. Rebsie’s vocals are typically wonderful, but the two things I like most about this are: 1. it’s an utterly perfect piece of songwriting, a wonderful meshing of lyrical and musical ideas, the sort of charming dark-meets-light storytelling folk pop that we haven’t heard the like of since we lost Kirsty MacColl, & 2. the track’s epic sound, provided by layers of instruments, including William on mandolin, fiddle, whistle, guitar and bodhrán, and guest musicians Stephen Lang, on electric guitar, Tom Atwood, on synth, and Stephen Todd on whistles and (yet more) bodhrán. The epic ‘band’ sound to this track really appeals to me… I suppose it’s the prog rock fan in me, always wanting there to be more rather than less to be going on. So if you ever wanted to hear what it would sound like for Kirsty MacColl to write songs for a prog-folk band fronted by Vashti Bunyan (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t?!) then this track is a must hear.
There’s then another complete change of style and tone with the next track, the last of William’s compositions, “Jhonny Silva”. There’s a long and rather serious story behind this track, related to the shooting of an innocent student by Colombian police, but I don’t wish to go into all the details because this review is long enough already. However, please do check out www.colombiasolidarity.org.uk and if you feel suitably moved then do show your support for the people of Colombia. It’s worth saying that this is, I suppose, a political or protest song, of sorts, and although you certainly don’t have to know the story behind the song to appreciate it, it certainly puts a different complexion on your listening experience. Again, I really like two things about this track: 1. that it’s addressing a serious issue in the form of music but in a way that is neither clichéd nor too in-your-face; instead it’s thought provoking and subtle, teasing you to the water but giving you the option of whether you want to drink or not, & 2. that it’s so different stylistically from everything else on the EP, more a piece of ambient electronica or downtempo, reminiscent of the styles of Moby or William Orbit, with some big fat synth sounds. Kudos to Revolving Doris for daring to be different, and for making it work.
And then we come to the end of the EP with Revolving Doris’ take on “She Moves Through The Fair”. The tune will be familiar to most people even if you don’t know the title (artists who have recorded versions of the song over the years include Fairport Convention, Máire Brennan, Pentangle, Sinéad O’Connor, and, sadly, Boyzone, though don’t let that put you off) and it’s a classic Irish tale of talking to the dead, very appropriate subject matter for the Dorises. This is very much Rebsie’s baby – she’s been performing it for years in folk clubs, provides the very ethereal arrangement, plays keyboards and electric mandolin, as well as contributing some of her loveliest vocals – though William’s on there too with some 12-string guitar. This version definitely has a lot going for it and again I think it should go some way to being considered as the definitive take on a classic song. But either way, it brings the EP to a very satisfying and powerful conclusion.
I’m not going to say much more but it’s encouraging to hear so much diversity and so many different moods on this debut EP and hopefully they’ll be able to follow it up with a full length album in the very near future. In the meantime, if this sounds even remotely your kind of thing, check out the weblinks and order your copy of Imber.
Best tracks: Well, all of them, I guess… “The Unquiet Grave”, “Man Next Door”, “Rebsie”s SOS”, “Jhonny Silva”, “She Moves Through The Fair”.