Respectable Rebellion FOLKCAST review by Carys Deverell
For the first few seconds of this album’s opening track, “The Queen of Holloway”, I found myself surprised. The last thing I expected from two Yorkshire lasses was Americana, but there is certainly a tinge of bluegrass laced throughout Sharon Winfield and Helen Turner’s brilliant third album, “Respectable Rebellion”.
The aforementioned first track features Andy Seward on banjo, and the voices here could be mistaken for an American twang in places. And yet… this nonetheless manages to remain a wonderfully English folk album by two very talented women. I say that as a compliment of the highest order, because they sing with passion and feeling and you come away convinced that they write and sing from experience.
“The Queen of Holloway” celebrates the Suffragette movement, and it feels only right that I should be listening to it in the week of a local election. Whenever an acquaintance voices their surprise that I have never missed the opportunity to vote, my answer is always the same “Women died so I could vote.” It’s good to hear them celebrated here by an uptempo opener that demands your attention and then refuses to let go with the next song, “Trailblazer”, the story of women who delivered aeroplanes to the front line during the Second World War.
Now, I always feel somewhat uncomfortable with the word ‘feminist’. It seems to have so many negative connotations, and yet, many of these songs memorialise incredibly positive female role models, something that is sadly lacking in mainstream society these days. Perhaps this album should be required listening in all schools, so children can understand that women have always done great things, just not always in the public eye. But I digress.
With a name like Union Jill, surely the collaboration itself is more important, with the whole something far greater than the sum of its parts. A little digging on the interwebs told me that Helen is the soprano and Sharon a tenor, but at times it feels as though they are a single, inseparable entity as they mesh vocals, guitars and mandola, together with guest performances including Fairport’s Ric Sanders who lends his virtuoso fiddle playing to ‘Morecambe Bay’, an angry retelling of the fate of the Chinese cocklepickers in 2004.
From the disturbing lyrics of “Grandfather’s ghost” to the masterful overlapping vocals of “Mad Alice” the latter based on the tale of a woman hanged in York in 1825 for the ‘crime’ of madness, this is an album that has instant appeal and yet is one you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.
Respectable Rebellion Review by Fionn Coughlan-Wills ’One&Another’
For an album to be truly great it has to twist and turn against the predictable, become lost in its artist’s vision, and then somehow hang together under that carefully chosen brainchild: the title. Respectable Rebellion by Union Jill (Sharon Winfield and Helen Turner) has that engaging mix of genre and experiment. But does it gel comfortably as an LP-length piece of art?
A theme will always help. On several tracks, Winfield and Turner speak for figures and peoples of history that are often overlooked or entirely forgotten. A heavy concept to bolster a memorable melody, but opening track ‘Queen of Holloway’ carries the story of female suffrage with a strong country twang. With ‘Mad Alice’, the duo pay homage to Alice – the ghost who haunts the snickleway which carries her name Mad Alice Lane, filling in the gaps of history asking: ‘did she laugh when they showed her the noose?’. Nowhere on the album is this talent for story and composition stronger than ‘Trailblazer’. Here Union Jill delivers the vocal gravitas of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with uplifting instrumentation reminiscent of Paul Simon’s ‘Gumboots’. All this is balanced by the defiant persona of a World War II female pilot. Giving voices to the voiceless makes their objective endearing, but more importantly it excites the imaginative power of the listener, affording Union Jill a unique style.
The spine of Respectable Rebellion is Winfield and Turner’s harmonies. They could stand alone as acapella folk pieces, but occasionally the melodic vocals are lost under competing layers of instruments – something that is unlikely to affect them live. When the vocals do stand proud in the audio landscape the crux of the album is revealed as a tender musical relationship between the two. Respectable Rebellion offers a wealth of composition, offering rich bluesy guitar as in ‘Morecambe Bay’, delicate Nick Drake-like poise in ‘Home Again’ and the soothing organ of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ with ‘Grandfather’s Ghost’. It also features many poetic details in the production, as at the closure of ‘Mad Alice’ the ominous scratch of violins herald the heroine’s unfortunate end. This musical underpinning has earned the pair such high-profile patrons as Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention who says the album will give them ‘well-deserved recognition’.
As a band who formed ‘over coffee’, Union Jill’s personal stamp lies in the oral tradition of their country-folk rudiments. Stripping down the musical arrangements might define their identity further and refine that storytelling flair unique to them. The upcoming release will not disappoint the duo’s dedicated following. The overall feel of Respectable Rebellion ignites an underdog sympathy with the songs’ plentiful characters, and capitalises a diverse musical range worthy of admiration. As such, it earns its title.