The Rachel Hamer Band – Hard Ground

Album Review | Self Release | Review by Sheila Trow | Stars: 4/5

Hard Ground is rooted in the social history of the region and is delivered by a band with a considerable understanding of historical legacy and its social and political influences.  Here we have a fresh and contemporary, yet ultimately respectful approach to many traditional songs.  A four piece delivering a unique blend of voice, guitar, fiddle, and flute.  Appropriately, given the funding from the Graeme Miles Bursary Hard Ground opens with the lyrically brilliant “Blue Sunset”, and the word painting begins…”and the grime from the tall factory chimney’s turns orange, violet and gray”.  Here Graeme Armstrong’s guitar playing begins to shine, Sam Partridge’s flute weaves its magic in beautiful harmony with Grace Smith’s violin and Rachel’s voice.  The arrangements are simply stunning, and continue to reveal, further vocal nuances alongside layers of rhythm and instrumentation, on repeated listening.  Immediately apparent is the harmony formed between Rachel’s voice, Sam Partridge’s flute and Grace Smith’s violin.  The ‘vocal’ harmony work is minimal, yet beautifully crafted and punctuated by meticulous unison singing on Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia”, and Andy Dutfield’s “Will Jobling”.  The band’s captivating arrangement of Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over” with its opening of acoustic guitar and voice, its finale of contrapuntal voices and a flute which floats seemingly effortlessly above it all, is remarkable.  Where vocal harmony appears on tracks such as Rachel Hamer’s “Bevin Boys”, Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird”, and in the latter part of Jim Molyneux’s “The Digging Song”, it is subtle and entirely complimentary.  Rachel’s voice has an inherent depth and pathos entirely suitable for the subject matter.  Her clear diction results in vivid storytelling, which transports us into the world of the protagonists and ultimately reveals the weight and influence of our historical past.  Hard Ground is a tour de force in its genre, a coherent album in terms of subject matter and style, and one that continues to keep on giving.