Despite the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, one can’t help but be be struck by the eye-catching psychedelic art-work, presented in stark black-and-white, on Hannah Sanders’ and Ben Savage’s latest offering ‘Awake. This is the first album from the Cambridge-based duo since 2016’s critically-acclaimed ‘Before The Sun.’
Sanders’ dusky voice is undeniably strong throughout, a perfectly-tuned folk instrument to accompany her dulcimer, with melds nicely with Savage’s equally-impressive vocals and dobro. A number of guest musicians widen the musical palette with percussion, strings and horns, but this is very much a showcase for the main pair.
Half of the dozen songs on display here are new compositions, which seems perfectly fitting for an album which is clearly as in love with the old as it is enamoured with finding new ways to tell a story. Opener ‘Selkie Song’ sets a template with its sparse arrangements, intricate string-work and intertwining vocals. ‘Like the eaves, I read her every rise and fall,’ sings Sanders, before some lovingly understated horns segue seamlessly into the mix.
The traditional ‘Reynardine,’ in contrast, swoops along behind jaunty and inventive acoustic guitar, with the duo taking it in turn to sing in their trademark, intimately appealing delivery. ‘A Thousand New Moons’ slips and slides over shuffling percussion and pedal-steel guitar, ebbing and flowing like the tides. The instrumental ‘Every Night When The Sun Goes In’ showcases the musicianship and artistry which is at work throughout.
For me, the album’s highlight is the beautiful ‘Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key,’ a song which, like the spirit of folk music itself, reaches back into the past whilst searching for something new. Originally written by the legendary Woody Guthrie and later set to music by Billy Bragg, Sanders’ and Savage’s take is a gently shimmering thing – lilting, stripped-back and pleasantly haunting.
‘Awake’ reaches beyond English folk to embrace Americana and ‘world’ music influences, yet it never appears strained in doing so. The music feels so natural and easy that it takes a couple of listens to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of its compositions. Sanders and Savage should be rightfully proud of what they have created.
The album’s unusual art-work is continued inside the accompanying sparse, but nicely-presented booklet, which features mystical illustrations and lyrical snippets. ‘We used tarot throughout the recording process to help us think and feel more deeply about the music,’ says Sanders. ‘Awake’ is clearly a labour of love, delving deep down into the soul whilst reaching up toward the sun, and it is a very accomplished one at that.