2016 Adelaide Fringe Review - Rip It Up

Bush Gothic

4.5 stars The Crown and Anchor Hotel, Reviewed By Justina Ashman, March 7, 2016

Bush Gothic is a mesmerising hour of Australian folk that will transport you into Australia’s colonial past and utterly immerse you in it. The eponymous band features Jenny M. Thomas on fiddle, piano, spoons and lead vocals, Dan Witton on double bass and historical fact checking, Chris Lewis on drums, piano, glockenspiel and mandolin, and a guest appearance from The Lonely String Quartet cellist, Rebecca Johnson.

Thomas’s voice soars above layers of strings and percussion, evoking a mythical folkloric feel that perfectly complements the often rather melancholy lyrics. The group shows an impressive versatility – at one moment you’ll be holding your breath during mournful ballads and the next you’ll be grinning through percussive and playful tunes. Throughout it all, the musicians onstage maintain an energy and intensity that is utterly riveting.

Most songs are accompanied by brief introductions that give the audience a bit of historical context, and the band’s genuine passion for both history and music is absolutely infectious. Together they create a performance that is not only a joy to experience, but which inspires a reinvigorated interest in this period of Australia’s past.

Beautiful, evocative and thoroughly enjoyable, Bush Gothic is Australian folk at its finest.

fRoots Magazine (UK) - CD review July 2012, No. 349


For the few of us who have been lucky enough to see Australian fiddle-singer, spoons player and pianist Jenny M Thomas live, it will be a delight to learn she is planning to tour the UK in October with ‘the System’, aka double-bassist Dan Witton and drummer Chris Lewis. She is also working on getting UK distribution for this fine album, which I have a feeling might establish her as a significant figure in the folk scene (it is widely available now as a download or on CD from her website if you can’t wait).

Bush Gothic boldly tackles ten folksongs about travelling to Australia and imprisonment with fresh and inventive arrangements. Memorable piano riffs, sweeping strings, multi-layered and measured (sometimes funereal!) tempos define the sound, and in terms of comparisons, it reminds me of Jim Moray’s debut, P J Harvey’s White Chalk and, in Jenny’s voice, Regina Spektor. It’s true that the first half of the CD in particular can get dangerously dirgey in places, but it has a certain mesmerising quality that draws me in more and more.

Henry’s Downfall is a highlight, the tension ratcheting up as the narrative progresses over thumping drums and repetitive piano. My other favourites are the two upbeat numbers – the quietly jaunty Ten Thousand Miles Away in which Jenny’s singing captures the protagonist’s bubbling excitement at seeing his love again, and the perky closing take on Maggie May (the traditional song, rather than the Rod Stewart/ Martin Quittenton number).

If you opt for the CD you get an attractive and arty cardboard case, although I wouldn’t have minded lyrics and some information about the project or the songs themselves. The album also, like most classics, comes in at an accessible 45 minutes.

Christopher Conder

National Times, Warwick McFadyen

Journey into the past

October 5, 2011

All these grand finals, all these singalongs to the national anthem. Thousands of people in one voice raised to the skies: "Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free da da da da da daaa." It's always stirring.

This harmony of patriotism, national pride and sport segues rather nicely into my earplugs, specifically what I've been listening to for the past two weeks. But it needs to be called the other side of the coin of the realm. For this has been rather a collision of historical soundwaves.

Frankly, wars could have exploded, governments imploded, revolutions sparked and faded, Shane Warne could have proposed, the trains could have run on time. I have been deaf to it all.

Who do I have to thank for this interregnum? A Melbourne trio, and their supporting cast. The trio are Jenny M. Thomas and the System. The two making up the System are Dan Witton and Chris Lewis. The fruit of their labour is the CD Bush Gothic.

Thomas sings and plays violin, viola, piano, Fender Rhodes, spoons and guitar. Witton sings and plays double bass and chord organ. Lewis sings and plays drums. They are helped by Pria Schwall-Kearney (fretless banjo), Ceridwen Davies (viola), Michael Brooks-Reid (violin), Zoe Knighton (cello), Roy John (guitar) and Jason Day (backing vocals).

It was produced by Thomas and Roy John (who also mixed it), recorded by Dave McCluney and mastered by Lachlan Carrick.

I mention all those involved because credit where credit's due. Bush Gothic takes your breath away. With most music, within a fairly wide parameter, you know what to expect either from your own experience of the artist/artists or from what you've read or seen. But Bush Gothichas come — at least to me —from out of nowhere, postmarked Melbourne.

It is not original work, yet it is sparkling in its originality. Thomas and the System have reworked traditional songs about Australia — its convict, transportation and early settler years — into a chain that holds you captive. It's a work bold, inspired and beautiful in its intensity. Thomas, plus two, have taken the foundations of a folk library and built a new architecture. (Thomas has also recorded an earlier CD called Farewell to Old England Forever.) Traditionalists, those who sing along to Burl Ives doing Botany Bay, will probably hate these renditions. So be it. In order to create one must, at times, destroy.

Thomas and the System make their intentions clear from the first notes — a drone of strings, and then a Middle East cadence for but a few bars, in effect, alien to our ears that says you are entering a foreign world; and then begins the journey.

The track listing is:

A Nautical Yarn
Botany Bay
Black Velvet Band
Moreton Bay
Henry's Downfall
Ten Thousand Miles Away
Botany Bay Courtship
Wide Is His Blow
Botany Bay Courtship Reprise
Maggie May

The first song, A Nautical Yarn, sets up the album in its ease of mood movementand seamless joining of words and music. Botany Bay begins with the most simple of piano notes, an austerity of despair, and then Thomas begins singing, and it's a swooping, wild, lament that turns by song's end into a ripple of faintly tinged hope.

Then follows two meditative pieces Black Velvet Band and Moreton Bay, the latter though does not hide the misery of transportation and what lies beneath the equator:

I've been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I've been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails
For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay.

The centrepiece to me is Henry's Downfall — also known as Van Diemens Land — one of the most commonly covered folk songs — from Shirley Collins to Jim Moray.Here it begins with just voice and banjo; drums and piano creep into the song, like footsteps in the night. At three minutes in, a harmony begins like a choir of ghosts. It chills to the bone. ''They lined us up like horses . . . they yoked us to their ploughs for to plough Van Diemens Land''. It's a song of slavery brought to life in the 21st century. It's our history.

There follows tales of love, Ten Thousand Miles Away, love thwarted by distance, and then Botany Bay Courtship, love thwarted by the factory gates, ''The Currency Lads may fill their glasses and drink to the health of the Currency Lasses, But the lass I adore is a lass in the female factory.''

Wide is His Blow is a merging of The Banks of the Condamine, which is itself based on The Banks of the Nile, and Click Go the Shears. Again a simple piano intro sets up heartbreak; a man is going ashearing and his wife pleads to go with him. Yet, there is in the violin accompaniment something uncatcheable, something you can't lay a finger on as Thomas brings in a line from Click Go The Shears: ''Wide is his blow and his hands move quick.'' And the song is turned on its head.

Bush Gothic ends with Maggie May (no, not Rod Stewart's version though are similarities) about a young scamp who is transported for her thievery. It's almost jaunty, uplifting.

One couldn't of course sing Bush Gothic at a grand final. One couldn't even sing it at barbecue. One perhaps, could hum a few lines on Australia Day. It could reside in the back of your mind, at home with what other feelings you might have for this country. Bush Gothic goes deep into the well of national identity. Whether we know it or not, we all drink from it.

The Weekend Australian

Bush Gothic
Jenny M. Thomas and The System

JENNY M. Thomas and her Melbourne cohorts have contrived an arresting antidote to conventional takes on good old Aussie bush music as purveyed by a thousand lagerphone-propelled backyard bands.

Exhibiting a minimalist and downtempo approach, Bush Gothic comes palpably closer to capturing the original essence of convict songs and the austerity of the times – transportation, torture, deprivation, heartbreak and such. Thomas’ lugubrious vocal delivery, dark piano chords and Nordic accented fiddle and viola set the ambience perfectly in this haunting follow-up to her 2006 solo album Farewell to Old England Forever.

Drums, doublebass, banjo and string quartet add brooding undercurrents to the leader’s template, allowing full impact and absorption of the lyrics. Those accustomed to jaunty bush band versions of chestnuts such as Botany Bay, Black Velvet Band and Ten Thousand Miles Away will only recognize these heavily revamped and rearranged renditions by the words.

The dramatic opener, A Nautical Yarn, sets an authentically gothic tone, albeit with a hint of Indian-inflected fiddle. A funeral pace suits that ultimate convict classic, Moreton Bay, down to the ground. Henry’s Downfall and Maggie May are comparatively animated, the former embellished with vocal harmony; the latter coquettishly sung to a tacit reggae beat. Thomas is fast becoming to Australian bush music what US duo Snakefarm is to revisionist American folksong.
Tony Hillier Nov 26, 2011

Rip It Up Magazine
Live review, Adelaide Fringe Festival
March, 2012

The SA Folk Centre, Sat Mar 3

The birth of folk rock in the ‘70s made the purists cringe. But that was nothing compared to what Jenny (fiddle, piano, spoons), Chris Lewis (drums, percussion, piano) and Dan Witton (double bass) have done to traditional Oz folk music. And they have done it brilliantly! They sang about convicts, bushrangers and life in a younger Oz. They each worked tenaciously to perform their own unique arrangements to well known songs such as True Blue, Moreton Bay and Bound For South Australia. Jenny’s voice was stunning. Their three-part harmonies were tight and passionate; you could sometimes imagine you were listening to Irish band Clannad. All fine musicians and their interpretation of songs may be just what’s needed to bring younger musicians back to folk music. They’re not alternative folk but an evolution in traditional folk music. The crowd should have been bigger but they were enthusiastic, resulting in a well-deserved encore.

Final Word: Outstanding

Mike O’Callaghan

Music Forum CD Review ‘Farewell To Old England Forever’ Nov 2006

Imagine the most hackneyed old songs of colonial Australia re-imagined as works of exquisite beauty – that is what Jenny M. Thomas has achieved in this album.

Ten years ago, Eliza Carthy and Nancy Kerr emerged as part of the new brood of female folk violinists of the British tradition. Born as they were of folk royalty, expectations were high on how these youngsters might break folk music mores the way their parents had done in the 60’s - and they did not disappoint, melding styles and incorporating rock rhythms!

In the same way, Jenny M. Thomas has ‘broken the mould’, but what she brings to her performance that the younger girls lacked is finesse and life experience.

In her hands, songs such as Walzing Matilda, Bound For South Australia,Botany Bay which have traditionally represented the rowdy Australian larrikin spirit and the mateship of men become quiet, introspective, melancholy yet contented – perhaps a female perspective on early colonial life rarely voiced. As these songs are all about loss of liberty and loss of life, Jenny’s interpretations are truer from an emotional perspective.

Jenny has spent many years immersed in the violin techniques of other cultures, particularly Indian and Scandinavian, and has performed with several different world music ensembles. Influence of these musics is not obviously evident in this CD: perhaps the use of drone is similar to that of Indian music, and the use of violin chords like slowed down hardanger fiddling.

These other styles become part of the palette drawn from only as absolutely necessary.

There is throughout a great discipline in the careful resources. Accompaniment by Chris Hale, Anthony Schulz and Pria Schwall-Kearney is minimal in the extreme. I have seen Jenny performing these songs with just her violin and voice – the extra instruments provide only a small lift to the arrangements. That said, where it is used, the accompaniment is a perfect fit: the rolling feel of Codfish (South Australia with different words) with banjo-mandolin and accordion is pure bliss!

Her singing I find strongly reminiscent of male British singer Nic Jones whose engaging voice had the power to make the average person feel good about singing along to whaling songs.

 You will find this album surprising, but you may find yourself at the end reaching for the play button to hear it all again – a wonderful listen!

Anthony Linden Jones