It’s tempting to wonder why it has taken six years for this celebrated English vocal trio to come up with the fourth studio album of their decade-long career, but like jazz musicians, folkies like to shift between collaborations and solo projects, and Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans have all been busy.
On Tender, their trademark harmony singing remains splendidly intact, given instrumental support from banjo, harp and keyboards but fundamentally sufficient unto itself, with an inspired cover of Björk’s Hyperballad delivered a cappella other than “body percussion”. Its other two covers – Tracy Chapman’s 3,000 Miles and Lal and Mike Waterson’s Child Among the Weeds – help shape an album that moves easily between the personal and political, and is centred on womanhood in its assorted roles. While Chapman’s song celebrates escape from enforced identity, James’s Echoes honours dementia and Rheingans’s Rest Now hymns a feminist activist killed fighting Islamic State in an all-female Kurdish militia. Askew’s three songs are closer to home, finding mystery and hope in nature and birdsong: “Wise is the autumn though bitter is the wind,” suggests The Fall.
A thoughtful record whose moments of bleakness are softened by the trio’s lush harmonies. Well worth the wait.