Two guitars, two hushed voices, a looming double bass and a room that moves. That’s all that’s needed.
Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward go way back. In the 1980s, both were ungrizzled Scottish freshmen; teenaged guitarists coming up through roots music gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their paths have intersected many a time since then, while both clocked up the years and the experience – Mark with a brace of projects including the Berlin Americana band Two Dollar Bash, Craig most famously with dEUS (and spinoffs like The Love Substitutes), While this fuller collaboration was mooted in 2007, it wasn’t recorded until 2010 and 2011, and then went unreleased for a further year. In the meantime the intent hasn’t gone stale. If anything, it’s aged like a good whisky. This album might have been a while in coming, but it’s happily unstuck from the demands of time – just like any long friendship of the kind where a phone call and a kept date in a bar wipes away the years of separation.
Mark and Craig are upfront about their intentions. They’re reviving that strand of British “folk baroque” as played solo in the ’60s by Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, developed by John Renbourn and Danny Thompson in Pentangle, and performed in a shroud of mystique and withdrawal by Nick Drake. ‘Waiting For The Storm’ utterly recaptures that Witchseason glimmer – timeless, intimate and immediate, with the air listening in and the feeling that the songs are at the forefront of a push of story and message.
As guitarists and as singers, Craig and Mark are perfectly matched. Acoustic fingerpicking styles knit together in a generous skein of give-and-take, with each man providing varied electric textures as and where needed. Their quiet, rough-finished voices blur and separate in sighed harmonies, tinged with weariness, a little foreboding and some scarred-knuckle gentleness. Between them, Hannes d’Hoine plays double bass as if it were a straining mast, conjuring up deep thrums, solid gutsy plucking and ghostly bowed atmospherics. It’s very much a three-cornered exchange – almost telepathic in the players’ instinct to play just what is needed and no more.
As for the roots of the record, they drift – and no wonder. Though Mark and Craig are Scottish by origin, they’re wanderers by nature. The stoic discomfort blues of A Strange Place traces lightly over the angst of this lifestyle; the menacing weightlessness of its temporary, torn-up settlings. “Anyone entering this place they might say, / a strange place in which we belong…/ It’s a strange place we do run to, / a strange place to which we do run.” The slithering folk riffs and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies of Something On The Breeze raise up something more of home, via a Lowlands song of roaming and departure. (“Blowing through the open door that I have just walked through, / blowing me along to something new… / Looking forward to looking back on the things I’ve left behind, / somewhere a little further down the line.”)
Under even the dreamier-sounding songs, there’s a Scottish feel of hard lines: an undercurrent of poverty and menace dealt with stoically (“I see the cops on every corner, / people waiting ready to run. / Blue lights flashing out a warning – / someone’ll get hurt before the morning comes.”) Yet most of the underpinnings of the record come from one particular location: Mark’s current home of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. Throughout ‘Waiting For The Storm’, Haiti breathes itself steamily into the mood and the music – mountains and stagnant creeks; tin roofs, heat and restlessness. There’s an occult foreboding here too, perhaps brought in by the business of living under the threat of capricious flooding, of drumming rain, or of violent passions swelling out of control. The answers flicker through the songs, half-seen, or viewed full in the face for an uneasy moment.
Some of it’s more relaxed; simply sketches and shadings of place and time. The winding sea currents of All The Doors Are Open (with Hannes’ grasping bass anchoring the surges of meter) invoke summer-struck stupor and an urge for motion. “All the doors are open, cars go past outside. / Won’t you take me with you, take me for a ride?… / I gulp down the icy water, drowning in the heat. / Hills lean over the hazy sea, wheels turning to the beat.” The instrumental Black Sail travels in a wave-roll and a dark minor key, telling a wordless story: moods shift weather-wise like bands of sunset and lowering clouds, the accelerations and slowings of the guitars tracked point-by-point by Hanne’s bowed bass.
With the title track, however, more threatening moods gather. “See the vinyl spinning its strange pattern in my head / and I can’t help thinking about something somebody said…” Like a brooding canvas, Waiting For The Storm uses the old expressionist motif of threatening weather to illustrate roils in the spirit, but leaves us hanging and expectant. “The sky is getting darker and the glass begins to fall. / The flicker of the candle’s throwing shadows on the wall… / Siren in the distance, the evening air is cool. / The bottle’s almost empty and the ashtray’s nearly full. / Waiting for a moment when it all begins to spin – / voices in the darkness, waiting for the storm to begin.”
Although the Haitian setting offers ravaged scenery and wild elements aplenty, Mark and Craig are ultimately too subtle just to use it as an exotic stage. In their lean words, they imply that most of the trouble a nomad might find in places like these might actually have been brought along in his own baggage. Secret Places, certainly, is caught up in its own space – one of obsessive passion, affirming “there’s no after, no before, /each time we pass through this door. / Nothing matters anymore – / each moment burns more fiercely than the last.”
Haiti gets to speak for itself as well. Amid arco bass rumbles and a stew of electric guitar atmospherics and acoustic webbing, Les Belles Promesses sees Mark, Craig and Hanne take a step back so that Haitian laureate Frankétienne can take centre stage. Working in smouldering wreathes of text from his own ‘Voix Marassa’, the old man recites and declaims in an impassioned, mesmeric French Creole like a voudoun Baudelaire, calling out razors and toadstones, sickness and fire, rocks and struck matches. “L’acidite de l’ombre… l’obsession des long voyage impermanences au bout du sexe, la passion du danger dans le sang, la fascination de riske… au-dessus du desastre.” Even at its height it remains honest, clear about the swings of raw fraught instinct.
So it is that the remaining two songs are left to their own devices. Icy Shivers comes from the armpit of a bad night – a circling lick; scribbling, edgy double bass harmonics; and moonlight-drop electric guitar, both ominous and omen-ous. “Things that crawl and things that bite / my thoughts as black as the sky tonight – / oh, it’s a long, long time until the dawn… / Dead of night the city sleeps – / waters still, a bargain deep.” Elsewhere, in Watching You Sleep, the devils are scratching away at a hard-won peace. Mark sings, as soft as anything, the pillow talk of a devoted lover – “you, your head lying on my shoulder, hear you breathing soft and clear. / I don’t care about tomorrow just as long as you are here,” – but hints at darker things abandoned in order to find and keep this haven. Even if they’re not stalking after him, there’s still a haunting. “I put the key in my pocket / and walked away from what came before. / A tune was running through my head / a song I can’t remember anymore. / I heard the sounds that go round the valley / hints of something far behind. / Something I wasn’t aware of losing / now I keep on trying to find.”
As other people’s violence stirs in the street, Mark’s narrator feels the pull of it and with a quiet, heartbreaking determination he asserts his love over rage. “I don’t want to go and get in a fight / I just want to stay with you tonight… / Don’t want to make nobody cry, / I just want to watch you where you lie.” The words are simple or even banal on the surface. The sentiments behind them, as sung, are subtly devastating. A reedy fuzz of electric guitar solo, one of the only ones on the record, seals the deal with hulking, sweating fingers.
There is an eventual respite from this darkness. Full of chuckling mandolins, The Six O’Clock Whistle is a jaunty folk instrumental with a hint of a reel (plus a nod and a wink to the childhood innocence of ‘Chigley‘). Sitting at the end of the record, it lifts the pressing atmosphere of the rest of the songs, drawing you away from the mesmeric night of memories, fancies, booze and shadows. Still, it’s the latter that remains with you: a baroque spell of sketchy lines, disquiet and stirred emotions, with some lines flapping free and others coiled too tight. A magical listen.