Carole Pegg hunts out a psychedelic Cambridge duo in the tradition of ‘odd folk’

Text taken from FRoots and written by Carol Pegg

That Naomi Randall’s first CD, with Tom Gaskell, is with Aaahh Real Records, a local Cambridge punk band label, is typical of the way that she’s drawn to the  ‘out of kilter’. Recorded over a period of 3 years at Big G Studéos, it’s anything but punk. The mixture of traditional and self-penned songs morph here from Naomi’s pure voice and laid-back summer-meadows sounds into the psychedelic or, as Naomi likes to put it, the ‘cosmic’. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Tom Gaskell, who is the sound engineer and studio owner, helps produce these innovative sounds. Looking like Joni Mitchell, Naomi has sprung from the Cambridge folk and pub circuit via charismatic solo floor spots and performances with her band ‘Somewhen’ (with guitarist Keith Railton and Lea Nicholson – of 1960s concertina fame – on electric bass.) The album she’s made with Tom was intended for local use and the sleeve therefore contains little information. The inclusion of family and friends, as well as song titles and sound effects, contribute to one of the strengths of the album: a local feel. Naomi’s father ‘Pop’ Randall plays his own 12-string guitar piece, Nick’s Song, and duets with her on one of her own songs, The Granta.

Song themes and sounds also contribute to its grounding in a sense of place. The Granta is the local name for the River Cam; St John’s is one of the Cambridge colleges; and the traditional Orkney lullaby Sleepy Laddie Door is topped by field recordings of primary school children playing and tailed by the tinkling of Naomi’s gran’s old musical box. But their surreal tapestry of traditional, folk and psychedelic sounds reaches far beyond the local and – interest tweaked by their album launch in what felt like a Bedouin tent (courtesy of Nomads) – I arranged to meet them in Cambridge’s ancient ‘Eagle’ pub to quiz them more about their music. We began with Naomi’s interest in the ‘odd folk’, as she puts it, of the 1960s and ‘70s. Drawn to the experimental, Naomi cites the folk-rockers Mr. Fox and Trees, the psychedelic sounds of The Incredible String Band and American folk singer Linda Perhacs, and British acid/progressive folk/rock band Jan Dukes Grey as influences. All can be detected in the music and alluded to in the collage of photography and Naomi’s drawings on the CDs back cover. Naomi (in hippy- gown holding a small wicker bull, standing behind a skull) and Tom (with sitar and top hat) are surrounded by other oddities including an apothecary’s mask, a fiddle-playing fox, a trombone-playing naked man, her rabbit-eared father, a medieval couple from a local wall-painting.

Both Naomi and Tom enthuse about British finger-style guitarist Davy Graham’s pioneering use of jazz, blues and even Middle Eastern instruments, as well as his radical collaboration with English traditional singer Shirley Collins on Folk Roots, New Routes. The Randall-Gaskell interpretation of their Nottamun Town is one of the cracking tracks on this CD, moving seamlessly as it does from Naomi’s straight folk vocal with bluesy guitar to a mystical psychedelic ending. Naomi’s effect pedals and Tom’s guitars, synth and finger cymbals are joined by blues maestro Tom Fielder’s resonator and dobro guitars to achieve startling effects. Another cracker is the Child ballad Lord Gregory. As with Nottamun Town, Irish singer Elizabeth Cronin’s version of this ballad – filtered through the lineage of Shirley Collins and Scottish folk musician Alasdair Roberts – becomes unquestionably their own. Naomi’s traditional vocal is matched by Sammy D. Wheeler’s sparse acoustic guitar but then – as the unfortunate lover speaks from beyond the grave – is enmeshed in spooky textures from shruti box, autoharp, bowed cymbals, backwards instrumental sounds and Gaskell’s synth. You may also discover a new whispered verse tucked in there. These two songs nestle among others that conjure up gentle, dreamy, hypnotic and sometimes achingly sad meanderings, helped by instruments such as plucked psaltery (lap harp), glockenspiel, mellotron and chimes. Listen, for instance, to La Pernette, a 15 th -century traditional French song of tragic love, passed on to Naomi by Gabriel Yacoub of Malicorne; the sweet harmonies of Sleepy Laddie Door; the interleaving guitars and vocals of The Granta conjuring up the river’s whispered rhymes and playful chatterings as it wends across Granchester Meadows; and their finale St John’s Raga, a sitar and guitar duet with embellishments that include the guitars of Naomi’s former The Mixed Up Kind band mate Paul Green, and described by Tom as ‘evoking a feeling of sitting on the lawn on a sunny afternoon, drinking a cup of tea, and teasing your sleepy cat with a stick’.

Holding it all together is Naomi’s sparsely decorated voice, somehow simultaneously haunting yet authoritative and, of course, experimented with, as in The Bonny Bunch of Roses where – inspired by the multi-instrumentalist Robin Gillan of Cambridge’s Black Fen Folk Club – she resonates it through her banjo. This CD is an atmospheric delight, delivers some mesmerizing tracks and promises much. For those who want to catch Naomi and Tom live in the near future, they will kick off the club tent on Thursday 31 July at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

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