KELLY OLIVER – Bedlam (Folkstock FSR25)

BedlamReleasing her debut album, This Land, at the tail end of 2014, barely a year after making her first appearance on the folk circuit, the distinctively pure, trebly-voiced North Hertfordshire based singer-songwriter clearly doesn’t believe in letting the grass grow under her feet. She returns now with an even more striking, even more ambitious sophomore release that sees her working with three different producers, some of whom have been involved on co-writes.

Stu Hanna from Megson is behind the desk for four numbers, first up being the co-penned title track opener on which he also contributes fiddle, percussion and guitar. It’s a dynamic start to proceedings, a jaunty, tumbling drums folk tune on which Oliver multitracks her own harmonies as she sings “They strap you down and gag your mouth until you cannot shout  at all” in the voice of a young woman who, having a child out of wedlock, is judged to be mentally incompetent and bundled off to the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, a lunatic asylum dubbed Bedlam, where, from the late 16th century to 1770, visitors, mostly the wealthy, went to be entertained by and mock the inmates.

The second of the Hanna productions (this time playing fiddle, mandolin and piano) follows with ‘Lay Our Heavy Heads’, an equally bouncy, scratchy guitar number with syncopated percussion wherein the protagonist, a young chap, professes his undying love. Also sprightly of gait, ‘Miles To Tralee’ recalls her Irish heritage as banjo and fiddle (and a dash of shruti box) guide the young colleen as she professes how she’d walk all the way from London back to Ireland to return to the home where she was born. The last of the four Hanna numbers comes with ‘Same World’ (with an extended intro not feature on the radio play single) on which both he and wife Debbie provide backing vocals, a softer ballad that, backed by mandola, addresses gender differences and concludes that “we’re just little boys and girls telling stories of the same world.”

The second producer is Nigel Stonier, making the first of his two more commercially inclined appearances and co-writes with ‘Jericho’, accordion, harmonica, fiddle and dulcimer colouring an arms-linked swayalong in which the singer declares she’ll fight any girl in town and bring down the city walks to bring home her prize. Their second collaboration is the album’s final track, ‘Rio’, a fiddle-flourished, beat and bouncy folk-pop number in celebration of the Brazilian capital that sounds not unlike something Thea Gilmore (with whom Oliver toured last year) might have recorded. No surprise then to learn she also sings harmonies on it.

The remaining four numbers are co-produced by Lauren Deakin Davies who, not yet out of her teens, has enlisted double bassist Luke Drinkwater and brought the same rootsy feel she did to the debut. The first of her tracks is ‘In The City’, a song of urban alienation with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and muted harmonica, followed by the vocally cascading, pared back ‘The Other Woman’ which, as the title might suggest, is about getting involved with someone who’s already spoken for. Double bass counterpointing the fingerpicked guitar and harmonica, ‘Ghosts At Night’ is a gently sad song that may address the plight of refugees, but certainly concerns those who, caught up in things they can’t control, have lost their sense of being rooted as she sings “You’ve lost the feeling in your wings, you’ve lost the sight of land below.” The sense of confusion and displacement filters thematically into the remaining number (and arguably the most striking after the title track), the impassioned, gradually building swayalong ‘Die This Way’, a song about today’s world with its extremism, a “wretched frontier” with “planes falling through the sky, shot down by the enemy side” sung from a frightened child’s perspective, strummed in Dylanesque protest fashion and featuring a similarly influenced harmonica break. It’s a hugely impressive and confident step forward that underscores Oliver as one of the new torchbearers of contemporary British folk and one which, I suspect, will give her the craft and experience to produce album number three herself.

Mike Davies

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‘Miles To Tralee’ – official video: