Sara Banleigh Folk EP as reviewed in Phantom TollboothTime-tested stories get the raw treatment

Brooklyn-born Banleigh looks across the pond to 500 year-old songs from various parts of the British Isles in this début EP. The five narrative tracks are heartfelt stories of death, sorrow, betrayal and love. She felt that such material needed to be raw, so to avoid the prettiness of some romanticizing folk, she has sung these pieces with as little embellishment as possible.

Twisting the normal presentation of these folk songs on guitar with pipes and fiddle, Banleigh uses piano as her main instrument, with occasional, discreet guitar and lashings of violin in between, used more classically than in Irish folk.

The bookending tracks both start with à capella vocals throwing the story at the heart of the music into the spotlight. “Railroad Boy” is a stark, poignant tale of betrayal that always touches the heart. Memorable high point “Geordie” (with Patrick Dunn guesting on viola) has the lightest, most sprightly feel (and a cracking tune); while “All My Trials” has the air of an American spiritual as the protagonist longs for heaven to avoid the sorrows of Earth.

Part of stripping away the polish that prettifies these hard songs is Banleigh’s dispassionate vocal style – more newsreader than grieving friend. Together with the clipped, dancing piano lines and some of the violin work, it gives this collection an almost old-French feel in places.

While my head understands the reasons she gives for the way that she presents these pieces – and it does suit “Railroad Boy” particularly well – I tend to prefer the sheer beauty that artists like Cara Dillon or Solas bring to folk, and which they manage without necessarily losing the pain inside the songs.  That said, I can find no fault with these enduring pieces and they preserve the tradition particularly well.

Download: Railroad Boy, Geordie.

Derek Walker