Of course it’s the voice. Heidi Talbot’s charming new album Angels Without Wings has so much about it to like: there are enough guest stars to make for a modest party – and the “host” musicians led by her husband John McCusker are all in fine form too. The songs are pretty, without exception. The Celtic folk flavour of the album is spiced with just enough of a dash of Americana to give it an occasional twist. But in the end what lingers is the voice. It’s such a distinctive sound, with a traditional purity and and an attractive breathiness, rather like a vocal flute. And it’s lovely.
The various contributors take much of the limelight too, as they deserve to. The two most arresting moments on an album that otherwise slips dreamily by are when very different but almost equally distinctive voices arrive unexpectedly in the middle of songs like honoured guests arriving late for the party. First it’s the velvety Kenny Anderson of King Creosote fame on ‘Button Up’, for which he wrote the lyrics to Talbot’s melody. Later on it’s the twang of American folk and bluegrass singer Tim O’Brien in ‘When The Roses Come Again’ (he serves on the album as a sort of transatlantic florist: he also accompanies Talbot on the wistful ‘Wine and Roses’). The other duet is in ‘The Loneliest’, where the understated, smoky Scots voice of Louis Abbott from Admiral Fallow blends in like a smooth whisky. As these are among the loveliest melodies on the record, it doesn’t seem to matter if now and then the sheer variety of voices seems a little contrived, designed to fit the collaborative theme of the album more than the requirements of a particular song.
Apparently, Kenny Anderson’s inclusion was sparked by the Independent‘s feature on fantasy bands, in which he selected Heidi Talbot to share the role of lead vocalist, alternating verses with of all unlikely people Morten Harket of A-ha. Hard as it is to imagine what that song might sound like, it’s such a good story that it justifies a bit of contriving.
The other guests play more supporting roles, and include the backing vocals of Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis on the Celtic fringes of the record, as well as the guitars of Mark Knopfler and Jerry Douglas, mixed in so unostentatiously that one isn’t sure exactly where they are. In between are Talbot’s fellow regular hosts, as in the accordion that gives the title track its feel of Parisian cafes in a song which is unmistakably Boo Hewerdine’s; or McCusker’s fiddle, the driving force behind the most traditional folk song, ‘Dearest Johnny’, and setting the tone throughout; or the flutes and whistles, often mournful but sometimes bubbling and sparkling in the background. Towards the end of the album, Talbot herself takes centre stage, as in the contentedly personal ‘I’m Not Sorry’, where she looks back on her years in New York – one more of the album’s American connections.
Those who prefer a sharper edge, more angles and fewer Angels, might wonder on occasions if it’s all a bit too gentle, even inconsequential. But most of us want sometimes to find an album that’s as uncomplicated, wistful and beautiful as this one. Especially one with a voice like that.
Words: James Garvin