It’s mere reviewer laziness that a band of folky female close harmonisers with proudly flaunted North Eastern accents would be immediately compared to the Unthanks, but The Cornshed Sisters, four maids of Sunderland who aren’t actually sisters (one of whom was in Kenickie, let’s get that out of the way straight away) compressing a set of acoustic pop, country, gospel and singer-songwriter storyteller connecting points into a setting that’s just sparse and traditional enough, are – despite surface similarities – very much putting their own slant on the tradition.
That sparsity is a large part of what sets Tell Tales out in its own space. Backed by no more at any time than acoustic guitar and piano, the production and recording of Field Music’s Peter Brewis gives the album an open feel where the co-operative lead vocal sharing and lovingly applied backing – no vocal-led folk outfit could get by without the timing and tone being dead on in its four-part harmonies – are kept to the forefront while still seeming to exist in a larger sonic area. Lyrically it wears its sincerity lightly, meaningful and from the heart but in no way overbearingly so. The likes of ‘The Beekeeper’ straight away feel like an updated take on a local standard, perhaps because of the occasional dropping-in of archaic language but also due to its lyrically rolling storyline, an engagingly dark tale of a failing apiarist who ends up making an offering to the gods as penance. More obtusely ‘Dresden’, a cover of local bedroom pop loons Les Cox (Sportifs), makes “if bombs were love you can call me Dresden” sound like the most obvious of statements of love. And as if to keep up the other end of the big book of folk song subjects, both the a cappella tracks involve death: the title character of ‘Tommy’ drowning and the Sisters acting as a chorus of angels assuring “we will take you home”, a line echoed in a different way over the crescendo end of closer ‘Sail To Me’; while ‘Pies For The Fair’, backed only by hand percussion, is a peculiarly proud tale of al fresco baking and fancy dress crossing over with unforseen consequences.
Ultimately, Tell Tales wears its playfulness on its sleeve but never shies away from foregrounding its depths, whether that be the quality of the voices or making what should be well trod subject matter paths seem fresh by approaching them from an odd angle. And if nothing else there will be few less likely, and simultaneously more joyous moments this year than that in the lovelorn lachrymosity of ‘Dance At My Wedding’ where a three-part harmony joins in on the line “good job on the gravy”. You can’t say fairer than that.