Written by: Dave Cantrell
First, there is Sarah McQuaid’s voice. A thing of febrile strength and a fierce vulnerability, either it had a hand in shaping the character and tone of her guitar playing or it was the heart inside on of her guitars – that ’65 Martin D-28 would be a likely suspect – that sat her down one day and taught her how to sing. As heard anywhere on this album (but particularly on “Slow Decay,” a wistful but unbending meditation on mortality) there is, between singer and instrument, such a sweet compelling congress it seems certain it couldn’t have been an accident of chance.
Second, there’s that playing itself. Never ostentatious there is no less a deeply assured presence to it, akin, let’s say, to the breathing organic thrum inside a moss-carpeted forest. In listening to the full-throated naturalism that characterizes McQuaid’s touch on the instrument it’s little (read:no) surprise that her appearance at the Village Pump Festival in 2014 attracted the keenly empathic attention of co-performer Michael Chapman. Thereafter offered an open-ended, open-door invitation to Chez Chapman in Cumbria, it’s equally unsurprising that she would say yes to the generous – and in retrospect inevitable – kitchen table proposal that Chapman produce her next record. The result, released February 2nd on Shovel and a Spade Records and on which the elder master, using his 1961 Gibson ES-175 archtop electric, contributes to four of its twelve tracks, marks the moment Sarah McQuaid the singer/songwriter/very fine picker indeed etches her name deeply on the imposing stone monolith whereon that long but select list of UK forebears from Vashti to Maddy to Sandy and a couple dozen more across genders and several generations.
Like a guitar soli record without the soli (not counting perhaps the 4-plus minute meditative gasp “The Day of Wrath, That Day”) in that it carries itself with an innate focus and unwavering intimacy, If We Dig... at its heart is a work built upon the courage of a singular vision. Authoring the great majority of the songs, it’s clear that the central emotional component of McQuaid’s aesthetic is the veil of mortality as it’s held up against – and with any hope and luck occasionally obscured by – the aspirations and joy of our common human existence. Thus, with a kind of fearless care, does she explore the mythical hidden inside the everyday – and yes, before you ask, the vice versa as well – the message among others seeming to be that this stuff is all around us, let’s, umm, dig it up and see what we find.
Stated most directly on the ringingly pensive title track that opens things, Chapman’s loamy slide tone earthen and mournful while Richard Evans’ trumpet hangs in the mist like a Chet Baker elegy, but just as evident in the playful fateful backyard nature show “One Sparrow Down” (the action made animate by Roger Luxton’s paw-strike percussion on a range of objects), “Cot Valley”‘s history-soaked lament, a past of smoke and child labor met with a blend of resilience and resignation endorsed by both Chapman’s clarion interjections and, more poignantly, Georgia Ellery’s almost eerily intuitive fiddle work, and on closer “The Tug of the Moon,” McQuaid alone with just voice and a certain borrowed Ibanez, that lesson of discovery, of brief epiphanies appearing like diamonds in the mulch, is never too deeply buried beneath the surface.
Buoyed by a rivetingly direct cover of “Forever, Autumn,” rich in its cello-warmed sparseness and brushed by the spirit of a madrigal, as well a quietly epic version of “Dies Irae” that has something of a brewing storm about it, If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous has a satisfying completeness about it, an expansiveness made concrete. It is, in short, the work of a consummate artist.[Definitely be sure to hit the embedded videos, but be even surer to sit down with the documentary below. It’s a gem]