Review for 'The Orcadian' by Mike Fairbairn 2009

The debut CD by Jo Philby
When tourists come to Orkney they are easily identifiable because of the way they step smiling through the towns’ streets. In fact they needn’t be wearing any of the north travellers garb, the wind-cheaters, back packs and cameras – because shining out of their faces is an unmistakable childlike marvel and rapture. Their gestures give away a thrilled impatience to explore and soak up. They desire to know: Where lie the edges of this impossible place? What makes up its shocking, beautiful soul that hauls at their precious time? The pure cool winds that rasp over oceanic fields buffet their every sense and Orkney’s ungraspable quanta pass like thunder-bugs into picture frames, becoming another part of them.
I normally give these travellers three days or so, and if they’re not building small reverential stone circles next to the tide, or parking in evermore bizarre places to point at another of the sea’s other worldly colours and creatures, you will at least hear them whistling or singing in the shop or hotel or quayside. They may even begin to develop an affliction of wanting to learn the fiddle or pipes, though this is usually, sadly (or not!) short lived…
But what will return home with them, perhaps in fragments of melodies or traces of phrases, will be the islands’ songs, tunes and poems? In Orkney the power of word and rhyme is immense and overriding. Indeed anyone attempting to capture a representation of the islands must rise up and meet the soaring standards of artistry that have gone before and is still being maintained. With this in mind I am very pleased to be able to say that Jo Philby’s first album of songs, “Saltwater and Stone” does this and will, I feel, be a treasure that both infatuated visitors and discerning residents will take into their souls and homes. I think it has managed to capture a pail full of these islands’ special magic, it may be the closest one can get to bottling whatever it is that is Orkney.
As I listened to Jo’s CD – starting with the wonderfully gentle “Follow the Heron” with its tender guitar accompaniment and exquisite flute playing by Graham Simpson and Derek Curtis respectively – what came through immediately was the care that is always present in Jo’s voice. Over the years when I have listened to her sing in traditional pub sessions (always bringing the bawdy bar to a complete hush) it was the clarity and depth of her delivery that always struck me. Now though, I realise she has a rare voice that is loved by the clattering bar and the studio microphone alike in equal measure. All the subsequent tracks confirmed this, whether they were unaccompanied or otherwise.
With over a dozen fine tracks here, there are many that I think will become firm favourites. The biggest surprise for me was just how accomplished Jo sounds in a band setting, on the strength of this alone she can feel totally confident about performing at any traditional festival anywhere. Her voice retains its warmth amidst guitar, fiddle and bodhran whilst never becoming strident or stylised. Really, I was foolish not to expect this, since her long background in solo singing now allows her to instinctively pick smooth phrasing which, along with that virtually indefinable entity, outstanding traditional tone, enables her to sound just right in each setting. Picking standout tracks can be hard to do on any album, and it is even harder on this one. Not only do there appear to be no weak tracks but the CD as a whole seems to be able to flit between lightly accompanied songs, sparse beautiful unaccompanied tracks, with just some ethereal reverb added, right through to full blown chorus bejewelled stompers – without out dipping in quality or integrity. This is a great trick that is rarely, if ever, accomplished.
Much of this is to do with the musicians Jo surrounded herself with. Fiona Driver is a wonderful fiddle player and composer, who I suspect had little trouble selecting, from her enormous repertoire of self- penned tunes, the few gems that grace some of the songs. Her ‘significant other’ Graham, as previously mentioned plays guitar with a fine rhythmic touch – not surprising since he plays fantastic percussion as well, a skill that bubbles memorably to surface on the brightly delightful “I Courted A Sailor”. In the other half of the ‘other halves’ department, Roger Philby – Jo’s husband - plays some tight and resounding bodhran (that’s an Irish drum in case you’re puzzled!) and it is good to get this chap near a microphone – something that should happen more frequently. The song that receives the full-on bodhran treatment is the magnificent “Down the Moor” sure to become a well played track, complete as it is with Derek Curtis and another ‘not so secret weapon’ who graces this album: studio maestro Phil Anderson playing bass.
Derek is a rare thing in Orkney; a superb Irish style wooden flute player, his touch on the instrument is sure and elegant, and he’s put to excellent work on several tracks, most notably “Blackbirds and Thrushes” a poignant traditional ballad that’s given the driving breath and beaten strings treatment. Also on this track is Gavin Firth, powerhouse guitarist behind the awesome “Chair”. Stylistically he counter points Graham’s playing on the other tracks brilliantly, adding his own specialities, namely lift and svelte intricacy, in equal measure. Phil Anderson’s hand is evident through out of course, and whether he’s playing keyboards or bass, the former as on the final haunting track, and my personal favourite, the Owen Hand song “My Donald”, he adds an informed and knowledgeable steering presence to the proceedings.
Another guest is Elma Cullen who ably provides backing vocals, subtly remaining in the background whilst still managing to shine. Elma must be an advocate of the ‘less is more’ school because though she is never prominent in the mix she adds much and I would like to hear more of her. She can be heard to fine effect on “River” a rolling infectious song that always goes down very well live. Speaking of things shiny, Mark Shiner has also been lured from his deep shed of harp-making activities and supplies some absolutely first class harp playing on the soul wrenchingly atmospheric “Constant Lovers” the ending of which is darkly exquisite and yet another high point.
I’m tempted to mention many other songs, but I’ll limit myself to mentioning only a few more. “Old Man Time” is a Kate Rusby song and Jo’s rendition can result in the hairs on your neck’s back becoming slightly flustered – it’s wonderful! She seems to instinctively know that the most you can do to bring out the soul of a song is to try to do nothing, the one caveate being that a very particular kind of nothing is the only sort that works…
There is also one very special song here. It is one that holds treasured memories for both Jo and Roger and is entitled “Orcadian Dream”, written for them by the renowned English folk singer and musician Sara Daniels, following a visit to their farm in Birsay. It is an oft-requested song already and here Jo sings it unaccompanied, letting its story unfold like a brightening morning. Fiona then rounds it off with her own fine tune, written especially for the CD and aptly titled “The Saltwater Waltz”.
This whole project: the immaculate design of the album sleeve, the painstaking choice of songs, through to the talented compliment of contributing musicians and the polished studio production has, more than anything else, been realised because of the intense passion and commitment that Jo has to traditional song. Nothing this beautiful is easily won. There is wonder, radiance and soul in this collection of songs and I feel they have been given life by a very special voice.
The CD is out now and is already receiving praise and radio play. Go purchase, cajole or otherwise track down by any means available this lovely album. Keep it with your stones from the beach in the drawer of your Orkney chair…    
Reviewed by Mike Fairbairn