Manhaton [Release date 12.05.14]
Formerly just Hat Fitz and Cara, Irish singer Cara Robinson now gets a full name check alongside her Australian partner Hat Fitz on ‘Do Tell’, an album of well crafted songs brought to life by a passionate performance.
Cara sings the lead track on 10 songs embedded in traditional roots, but given a contemporary edge by an unobtrusive co-production by Jeff Lang, a fine singer songwriter his own right, who doubles on bass and knows when to emphasize a feel or lyric.
Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson are minimalists who repudiate clutter. The songs have a simplicity of expression and are imbued with a musical depth explored on a folk based album, full of feel and spontaneous interplay that has the ability to shift from the deep roots of ‘Long Dark Cloud’ to the explosive jump blues of ‘Excuse Me’.
It’s also an album that refuses to be constrained by genres or musical trends. It’s full of variety and intricate musicianship that always supports the songs rather than dominates them. Hat Fitz’s deep-toned harp for example, is used to great effect on ‘Stray Hat’, while Cara’s uplifting flute brightens ‘Sister Sister’, but both are used sparingly after that, suggesting that the music is there to add emphasis and feel, rather than being simply virtuosic.
The opening ‘Friday Night’ is a country tinged Delaney & Bonnie meets Bonnie Rait style southern piece, with a fine vocal from Cara, potent bv’s and aching slide from Hat Fitz, on an open-ended finish. And Hat Fitz’s baritone makes a startling impact on ‘Stray Hat’, a shuffling piece with an insistent percussive backing track and a role reversal of bv’s on the chorus.
‘Gotta Love’ is a red-raw blues on which Cara extends her range like a younger Maggie Bell, over a dirt sounding slide-guitar on some heartfelt lyrics: ‘Been walking through the myer, (sic) in them big old boots again, I’m up way past my waist now, I ain’t ever going under again’. It’s also a track that revels in the use of space, as her impassioned phrasing rings out loud and clear on track that generates its dynamics through a stop-time break and an unexpected tempo change. Cara’s celebratory whoop at the end of the track suggests a job well done!
Her fiery performance is cleverly juxtaposed with Hat Fitz’s laid back Howlin’ Wolf style voice that fills the beer drinking title track with just enough gravitas, as Cara joins him on the chorus. The guitar parts jangle in the background in counterpoint to his earthy phrasing, before a tension breaking guitar-break on a beautifully paced track. Jeff Lang obviously knows the value of a slow build, as he adds another layer of Jason Bunn’s strings to achieve an eastern sounding finish to a notable album highlight.
‘Long Dark Cloud’ is remarkable in the way the music evokes the claustrophobic lyrical depression, on a track movingly sung by Hat Fitz, before he’s joined by Cara on the last verse for added effect. ‘All the clouds have gone to bed, but the cyclone’s blown round my head. Oh I feel like I, I’m being pushed down’.
The duo perfectly coalesce on the duet ‘99.9’ – all resonator and washboard – while there’s a some nice brushed strokes, more resonator and sudden flute on the folky Cara led ‘Sister Sister’. The infectious ‘Shakedown’ makes clever use harmony vocals to emphasize the song’s rhythmic intensity and they head for a hillbilly finish on ‘Coming Home’.
Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson manage to keep their music fresh, vibrant and real, not an easy job when you are constantly working together with your partner. There’s a naturalistic feel to their songs with engaging narratives that never feel forced or clichéd.
The thoughtful sequencing, deft pacing and contrasting vocal parts ensure the 10 tracks sound like album in the old fashioned sense of the word. ‘Do Tell’ is the duo’s essential musical vision. It’s filtered through producer Jeff Lang’s colander to smooth out the edges and refine their essential oeuvre.
From Rob Roy’s wonderful cover painting to the duo’s ebullient mix of story telling and expressive musical language, this album is a celebration of everything that is good about contemporary roots music, so forget the labels and just enjoy. *****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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