Frankie Armstrong: Cats of Coven Lawn review – at 80, still as intimate as ever

<span>Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

Frankie Armstrong has the voice of an outsider artist: tremulous, earnest, often whimsical, occasionally beautiful. Her singing began in the skiffle boom, before she joined Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Critics Group; after years teaching Natural Voice singing, she’s sung live with Lankum in recent years, and joined a new band, Green Ribbons, with Alasdair Roberts, Bird in the Belly’s Ben Webb and Burd Ellen’s Debbie Armour. The release of Cats of Coven Lawn coincides with her 80th birthday. Throughout, it crackles with a rough-hewn, abrasive intimacy.

Its 16 songs were recorded live at home over several weekends last year, with minimal overdubs. Opening track Bread and Roses, inspired by the 1912 textile mill strike in Massachusetts, establishes its raw, political clout. Delivered with a desperate yearning, its message about culture and beauty being needed as much as sustenance feels timely now: “Hearts starve as well as bodies / Give us bread, but give us roses.”

Hippy vibes and protest song culture beat their chests through We Are Women and Earth, Air, Fire and Water, but the album’s excursions into other cultures offer the most thrills. Yoiks is a moving, energising arrangement of a Sami song. Ajde Jano is a joyous, Serbian folk song where a woman is encouraged to sell her horse and her house to come and dance.

The quirkiness occasionally veers towards queasiness, but Marcy’s Guest House is fantastic: a ghostly original by Ben Webb, which places Armstrong as the shivery proprietor of an empty hotel. “The milk hasn’t been delivered since a bird drowned in the cream,” she sings, her wild voice stretching at the seams, suggesting other worlds she could explore.

Also out this month

Yasmin Williams’ second album Urban Driftwood (Spinster) is an ambitious, instrumental narrative of America’s 2020, mixing folk, pop and west African influences into gorgeous work inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Jim Ghedi’s In the Furrows of Common Place (Basin Rock) is also political, combining social history, literature and his ferocious vocals for the first time. The results are mixed: the music often beautiful, the messages too swaggering. James Yorkston and the Second Hand Orchestra’s Wide, Wide River (Domino) is another fascinating, curious contribution to the Scottish musician’s constantly eddying catalogue, recorded with the Swedish collective in three wild, improvisational days.