‘In The Air Or The Earth’, the latest release by the Askew Sisters, is less a simple listening experience than an immersive storytelling session- each track holding a rebirth of an old traditional song and drawing the listener in to a timeless world where girls talk to their loves from beyond the grave, princes marry paupers and maids are left forever waiting on the shore. This is surely folk music at its best: a pure sound that carries the original ballads to new ears, accompanied by the wonderfully talented duo of Emily Askew on fiddles and viola and Hazel Askew on melodeons, concertina and voice. The sisters have already received many accolades, with this their latest release gaining the Spiral Earth Award for Best Traditional Album 2015- and having listened to their music, the reason for this is immediately clear. At once captivating and intriguing, these tunes have a mystic, timeless air that demands repeated listening.
However, it’s not just the music that’s engrossing: on closer inspection the beautiful CD cover folds out several times, revealing an in depth exploration of the tunes played and their provenance. Indeed, even the album’s title weaves stories around the listener- it is a quotation from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. As with all the best recordings of traditional music the roots of each song is discussed and compared, giving an entirely new level to the listening experience of the album. We learn that various verses of ‘The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime’ are collected by George Gardiner from the Wiltshire area in 1909, whilst ‘Crimson Velvet’ was used as the tune for a number of ballads dating back to 1558, and originally owned a title over five lines long (definitely too long to fit on the back of an album). We learn how each song was collected, the story’s plot, and the songs eclectic route that led to its performance by the Askew Sisters. These songs are no longer simple background murmurs- they are stories that have been told again and again, and that we are now invested in.
These backdrops give whole new meanings to the tracks- and, when combined with the beauty of Emily and Hazel’s playing, create the perfect combination of story and music. The sheer range of musical adaptions, ranging from the haunting drones of the viola to the jaunty dances of the melodeon, means each tune is diverse and fresh. Listening to ‘In The Air Or The Earth’ indeed feels like taking a unique journey into traditional music- a journey I urge you to take as well.