eliza-carthy-neptune-cdCarthy is exhilarating in her passion for invention

Label:  HemHem Records  
Time: 10 tracks /50 Minutes

When a disc begins with the line, “I was drinking champagne with Jerry Springer” it’s a good start, but then the name Eliza Carthy – twice nominated for a Mercury Music Prize – is already a promise of quality. Here she performs one song about each of the last ten years of her life. In effect, it’s a decade of her picking the wrong boys.

Neptune starts off in exhilarating style. Carthy sounds like a female Duke Special on “Blood on my Feet” (which would make a great radio single, as opposed to the usual corporate ones) particularly when this black comedy explodes into the very chorus that honky-tonk piano was invented for, together with some tongue-in-cheek vaudevillian backing vocals buried low in the mix. That the track lasts for over six minutes makes the treat even better.

But there is no more of that. On this disc, Carthy and co-producer Dave Wah eschew any particular sound in favour of bringing out whatever mood lies latent in each song. For example, “War” reports from girls’ nights out with a mainly piano accompaniment that breaks into ska in places; and “Monkey” fuses sounds of indeterminate origin. It could borrow from calypso, or something strangely Spanish. Wherever it comes from, the song uses the image of being Fay Wray up the Empire State building, and some whistling along to the brass section helps it feels a little tongue-in-cheek.

Elsewhere, she lays her heart bare. In “Write a Letter,” Carthy uses minimal percussion, letting the smooth cello and brass wrap themselves around her phrasing like Lycra around a gymnast. Everything shows the shape of the beautiful melody and some aching lyrics.

Her writing is even more striking on “Tea at Five,” where an insistent bass drum beats the stress that she feels. Comparing herself to a house, she sings,

 “You are the keeper and you’re there inside my rooms,
 Knocking paint from walls, bringing outside in and muddying my carpet with your feet.
You are the landlord and you’re feeding long-dead lilies with your watering can and my old cooking pans.
You tell me that you love me then you break my doors and rake my skin with your wolfman claws.”

Spain gets a more direct mention in “Britain is a Car Park.” Making her political point in surreal style (brought out by dropping old folk harmonies into a frenetic, Latin-tinged musical maelstrom), she tells how everyone has gone from Britain to live in Spain, leaving Czechs and Poles to run the nation. With more than a nod to Joni Mitchell, she writes, “And the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree, we covered them in tarmac, sold the land to NCP....The granite mills, took them to museums, paid a euro and a half to see ‘em. We took them to Bilbao, New Leeds as it is now.”

Carthy’s last album Gift, recorded with her mother Norma Waterson, won Best Album in the Radio 2 Folk Awards and she balances working in the family tradition with far more inventive outworkings of her muse, such as this. Not everything here is as effective as the front runner tracks (“Romeo” and “Hansel“ are decent, but also-rans) yet she approaches all the songs with a wry wit that is her own, using the story-telling skills she has learned from the tradition in which she was raised. Her singing is as expressive as the production right across the disc, which is a collection to grow into, listen by listen.

4 Tocks at The Phantom Tollbooth