This second album release from this great team builds on the artistic success and wide acclaim of their first, The Silverlode, which came out at the end of 2002 and (for those who'd not followed his earlier work with the band Slide) revealed Tom Bliss as a songwriter of real stature.
The Kelping is defined as the process of the making of size from seaweed, and in leading off the new disc it typically illustrates Mr Bliss's penchant for authentic tales derived from local and/or industrial history, which he has the gift for expressing vitally and in an equally typical, catchy quasi-folksong mode. This loosely thematic approach forms the basis for many of the songs on this fine album. In fact (and this ain't meant in any way as a complaint) there's almost too much Quality to cope with here, so many bloody good ideas, so many damned good songs, so much excellent playing, a real embarrassment of riches.
You get 16 tracks, with a total running time of 68 minutes, and the proportion of top-drawer original songs on this CD is higher than you might find on two whole albums by an average singer-songwriter. But then Tom Bliss ain't yer average singer-songwriter - no way! He informs while he entertains, for you learn loads of interesting incidental and historical detail from his songs, and it's all been properly researched too (you can tell that straightaway from his brief but telling booklet notes). So here, as well as learning of the kelping, you find out about the "raven queen" Henrietta Maria, also the "real" Grace Darling, as well as the dubious deeds of Sir Cloudisley Shovell, the last land battle fought between England and France (on Jersey!), and even Mr Bliss's own mill-owning ancestor! Tom Bliss the songwriter has an unerring ability to choose just the right kind of musical setting for his narratives too, from the compelling ebb-and-flow of Flotsam And Jetsam to the jaunty jingle of Silken Leather, the lively refrain of the title track (now there's one that's tailor-made for Duncan McFarlane and his merry band!) to the poignancy of God Speed (an abstract of The Snow Goose) and the anthemic closer Tower Of Refuge (which celebrates the deeds of Sir William Hilliary, founder of the RNLI). But I digress
For those not yet in the know, Napper Bliss are blessed with a well nigh unrivalled combination of talents - that any top-name duo would kill for. They've been compared with Show Of Hands and Fox & Luckley, and these are certainly quite pertinent reference points for anyone starting out on the Napper Bliss trail. Some biographical detail won't go amiss here though: originally from the Channel Islands but now based in Yorkshire, Tom Bliss has recently returned to the folk fold, initially with Leeds band Slide and then latterly teaming up with Leeds's stalwart sessioneer the eminently versatile Tom Napper.
Now Mr Napper is a true "Dab Hand" in so many ways; he's best known perhaps as a banjo player, but he deserves a far, far better reputation than that description might normally infer, for he's also an expert exponent of the mandolin. And what's more, he's nowhere near rubbish as a singer either, putting it mildly (as demonstrated here by his expressive singing of Bliss's On Longstone or his adaptation of the traditional Campbell The Rover). Napper's serious prowess as a tunesmith is highlighted on the album's five purely instrumental tracks, which aptly punctuate the vocal cuts, but then again these are as much a vehicle for Bliss's skilled counterpoint on guitar, mandocello or mandolin. And that's another big feature of Napper Bliss; i.e, that each of the two musicians can effortlessly and credibly take on either lead or support role within any given framework (and what a trick that is if you can pull it off)! Bliss has composed three of the tunes himself, Napper one, and the rest are vital arrangements, by both lads, of traditional material.
Icing on the already satisfyingly rich instrumental cake baked by the Toms is provided by the guest appearance of that exceptional bodhránist Ciaran Boyle on three instrumental and two vocal tracks.
Then, having said all that, the centrepiece of the whole CD turns out to be the riveting solo rendition by Tom Bliss of the traditional Lady In The East, on which he accompanies himself variously on concertina and accordion - a real showstopper, that. But I must conclude by saying that extreme musicality is in abundance all through this beautifully recorded CD, and the whole classy package is a shining example of the true lasting quality that can be achieved without artistic compromise or need for major-label backing.
I'd not hesitate to say this is an absolutely brilliant album, in fact, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't make my Albums of the Year list in 10 months‚ time! (By the way, grab it before 1st April and it's yours for a special price of £11.)