7/10 A folk quartet from Sunderland, The Cornshed Sisters are not-actual-siblings Jennie Redmond, Cath Stephens, Liz Corney and Marie Nixon (formerly Marie du Santiago of Kenickie) who share vocal duties and perform on an assortment of acoustic instruments including guitar, piano and ukulele. With songs covering subjects as unusual as “waterbabies, beekeeping, marriage, soothsayers, men in sequined suits, making pies out of people and the axis of love and bombs,” their debut album Tell Tales never skimps on arresting imagery, and it’s not too shabby musically either.
Indeed, it starts incredibly strongly with a pair of bewitching folk tales set to lilting melodies. The softly strummed guitar that pulses through opener ‘Dresden’ (originally recorded by Les Cox Sportifs in 2008) ebbs and flows as the Sisters’ earthy vocal work surges and subsides, creating a strange and alluring atmosphere alternately conveying unease and simple beauty. The harmonies and group vocal flourishes are strong, with the solos suitably plain and straightforward to deliver the lyric – a line like “That infamous second child died in a Belgian hollow in July 1916″ may seem cumbersome on paper, but melodically it works.
The diversity of the Sisters’ vocal approach becomes more evident with ‘The Beekeeper’, where the off-kilter, almost nursery rhyme-esque melody is left to shine with a strong solo lead bolstered by subtle background vocals rather than intricate harmonies. Despite its ostensibly simple, sparse feel, the song is possessed with a real sense of urgency underpinned by some dexterous guitar work. A piano motif also makes an appearance midway through, and the harsher-sounding bridge, in which the melody rises in intensity, adds musical depth to a song where the storytelling is paramount.
The rest of Tell Tales doesn’t quite live up to the promise of those two initial tracks, but there are some interesting experiments to be heard here. ‘Dance At My Wedding’ boasts a breezier melody and a pleasant, piano-led arrangement, while the a cappella ‘Tommy’ at times recalls a decidedly more English version of Mountain Man, sounding like the choral interludes on Björk’s Medúlla as sung in the style of a gentle folk lullaby. The spotlight is shone firmly on the overlapping harmonies – high and low, earthy and airy – and the effect is quite intriguing.
Occasionally, the Sisters’ vocal work is solid rather than genuinely interesting. There is something of a mid-album slump where several of the piano-based folk ballads risk becoming interchangeable. ‘Ocelot Song’ is a slow, wispy number where one feels an opportunity for some intricate vocal work – instead, the vocals remain disappointingly thin and the harmonies uninspired. ‘One By One’, too, never fully realises its potential, while the almost hymnal flourishes of ‘Soft White’ aren’t enough to bring it to life.
Towards the end of the record, though, further experimentation is the order of the day. ‘If You Were Mine’ makes use of some surprisingly jazzy chords as it edges towards a galloping coda; in terms of vocals and atmosphere, there’s a hint of mid-period Jane Siberry about the song. There’s a complete volte face, however, for the stridently folky ‘Pies For The Fair’, built on a bed of unadorned vocals and percussive handclaps and finger-clicking, before the intense closer ‘Sail To Me’ with its strong melody and stirring piano work that recalls some of the album’s earlier highlights.
Tell Tales is ultimately a solid album that doesn’t quite match up to its early promise, but The Cornshed Sisters’ potential is clearly apparent. On the evidence of some of these songs, they have just the right amount of variety in tone, subject matter and vocal styles to find as wide an audience as, say, The Unthanks, and to produce more interesting work in the future.