The daughter of acclaimed British folk troubadour Martin Carthy and traditional folk singer Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy hasn’t shied away from her celebrated pedigree over the course of her career, emerging as one of the most compelling and diverse talents on the modern British folk scene. Her 13th album, Dreams of Breathing Underwater, is her strongest work since 1998’s Mercury Prize-nominated Red Rice and showcases the full breadth of her talents as both a composer and vocalist. Opener “Follow the Dollar” surprises for its aggressive alt-rock arrangement and a standout melodic hook adapted from a song by fellow folk artist Dwight Diller; the track proves that Carthy has the skill to write a great radio single when she wants to. But Dreams is not preoccupied with mainstream commercial success, with tracks like the lilting “Rosalie” and insouciant “Like I Care (Wings)” incorporating modern narratives into traditional folk-song conventions and arrangements designed for a quartet of violin, viola, upright bass and, awesomely enough, melodeon.
Perhaps the best marriage of Carthy’s contemporary, urban perspective with vintage song forms is “Oranges and Seasalt,” an uptempo cabaret number with a soaring sing-along chorus. The highlight of the set, though, is “Mr. Magnifico,” which builds an involved mythology for a man Carthy has spotted drinking in a tavern and which finds her singing the refrain as Tim Matthew provides a spoken-word narration that, if taken at face value, recasts a wealthy man with a taste for underage French hookers as a sideshow attraction. That song, like the rest of the set, bears Carthy’s wry sense of humor and her expert ability to tell stories of interest to a modern audience in the context of a traditional folk ballad.
Although not as pop-minded or gutter-mouthed, Dreaming works in much the same way as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black in finding ways to keep a decidedly vintage style relevant while carefully, deliberately constructing a distinctive sound of her own. It’s also worth mentioning that Carthy’s power, range and quirky sense of phrasing give her vocal performances, particularly on “Rosalie” and the fiery “Two Tears,” a depth of expression that few of the would-be soul singers like Duffy and Adele currently emerging from the U.K. have yet to match. Carthy has repeatedly proven her skill in covering traditional folk songs, but Dreaming proves that she’s able to write and perform her own original material that sounds equally timeless.