I normally have great respect for the works of the Carthy household. However, on first listening to Dark Light I was slightly disappointed. I was a little concerned that maybe they had lost their way a little with this one. It’s not until after reading the sleeve notes that you glean what they are trying to do on this album, and why: the album is a collection based on the taste of each band member as an individual, and is not a collective choice. Each has chosen a particular song taken from the singing of old tradition bearers such as Packie Byrne, Sam Larner, Seamus Ennis, Almeda Riddle and the Copper Family, etc. They freely admit in the sleeve notes that in the end all of their choices would not fit on to one CD as a balanced album. There were a few glum faces, but as every one had lost one or more of the song they wanted, they all ended up sort of happy!
But the big question is: will you be happy after parting with your £12.00 or so buying the album? Although all the singing and musicianship is near perfect, the musical arrangements are nothing special, and I am sorry to say, not the best versions of these songs that I have heard. The outcome raises the question of why the changes in the tunes or the time signature, just because you can, especially if the result does not enhance the song or the musical outcome?
The album starts well with Martin Carthy singing the Seamus Ennis version of ‘The Devil and the Farmer’ and then daughter Eliza Carthy sings her version of ‘May Morning’. Next is mum Norma Waterson with a dark song ‘Death and the Lady’ altering a few notes to fit in with the Watersons style. With the next track ‘The Outlandish Knight’ she again alters the tune and rhythm from the version found in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. At this point the album was dying on its feet. Thankfully, possibly the best track on the album comes to the rescue with Tim van Eyken playing ‘Balancy Straw’ with the song ‘Seventeen Come Sunday’ in the middle, ending with tune ‘Whitefriars Hornpipe’, all beautifully performed by Tim, Eliza and Martin with Tim on lead vocals.
‘The Lofty Tall Ships’ is up next, sung by Martin. This is the version taken from the singing of Sam Larner. The unmistakable guitar of Martin Simpson enhances the next song as Norma sings the Packie Byrne version of ‘The Holland Handkerchief’. Collectively they sing the Almeda Riddle version of ‘The Old Churchyard’. Norma and Eliza are next up singing their own version of ‘Crystal Spring’, again altering the tune and the time signature. Next is a parlour song circa 1850, ‘Diego’s Bold Shore’, nicely sung by Eliza to piano accompaniment. The album ends with a tribute to the Copper Family of Sussex with the entire ensemble singing ‘Shepherds Arise’ together.
To sum up I must reiterate the comments made by some friends after listening to the album. They range from “It is not the happiest album I have heard” to “Sounds like an album of all the leftovers” to “Nothing special.” In short this album left everyone with mixed feelings. To be fair I think this album should be viewed as reference point as to what could be done with these and other songs. It is a pity Waterson:Carthy did not include all of the songs they wanted and make this a double album. From the entertainment point of view, it is a very dour experience. Waterson:Carthy are very brave to bring out this album, for if the album had been put out by someone not so famous or well known, it would get panned! Pains me to say so, as I am normally a great fan, but this may not be the best album Waterson:Carthy have released. They may have done themselves a great disservice bringing out this CD, as they are capable of producing much nicer and better work, which could be more entertaining.