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'THE KELPING' March 05

Not long before the Grove Inn launch of this second Napper and Bliss album, I was startled to hear of someone who didn't care too much for Tom Bliss's voice. The massive majority find it full of the very things it takes to captivate listeners and keep them hooked in three ways : as a vocal instrument added to those being played, as a convincing carrier of emotion, and as a medium of clear narrative delivery. On The Kelping (it's something tricky done to seaweed on two small Channel Islands and a few others) you can choose from among his own writings 'God Speed', 'Flotsam and Jetsam' 'The Merry Bells of Helier', 'The Raven Queen' or his squeezebox self-accompanied solo arrangement of 'Lady in the East' and find these qualities to the fore. In the duo's repertoire, Tom Napper's voice leads less often, but nice examples of it in action here are an adaptation of 'Campbell the Rover', where he is the only singer; or two in which he is lead vocal - 'On Longstone', a reworking and expansion by Bliss of an 1838 ballad; or direct from the Bliss pen, another historical maritime account 'Tower of Refuge'.

At various points throughout the album vocal harmony chimes and flows, while Napper's tenor banjo / octave mandolin with Bliss's guitar / mandocello show such varieties of skill, feel, delicacy and strength that not only is there a magic that sometimes conjures up the effect of a trio or even a quartet, but an ephemeral piano or harpsichord is almost manifest at times. Five of the 16 tracks are instrumental, being either arrangements of the well-known and the less well-known, or pieces representing experiences in the lives of each Tom, plus one that is not historical but geographical, 'The Swinge' (something tricky the sea does between two small Channel Islands). They're beautifully handled, and some have the added benefit of Ciaran Boyle's bodhran.

In falling steadily under the spell of The Kelping, pleasure is strengthened by Bliss's moody concertina and accordion, and by witnessing the album reaching far beyond the odd small imperfection that may be to do with the freshness of certain songs. These two performers and their audiences grew accustomed to a high degree of polish from Tom Bliss's former band Slide, where Tom Napper was often present as an additional player. In the new work there are occasional touches of rawness, when a vocal becomes a little high and tight, or growls a bit when near the bottom end of the range. But those who've followed the progress of these men - one redeemed from the wilds of the Leeds rock scene where he is still remembered with reverence, the other whose mastery in aspects of the Irish discipline earns obeisance from some very high-ranking musicians - can expect that further performance of the contents of this CD will retain what's already excellent, while developing additional radiance for a very busy duo to take round all the Isles they can think of and to nations far beyond.

John Hepworth