Drawn from the ranks of Whapweasel and the now defunct Bellowhead, as well as other projects, self-styled ‘bloke folk’ trio, Paul Sartin, Benji Kirkpatrick and Saul Rose return with their third album, Death & Other Animals, the follow up to 2012’s Broken Down Gentlemen. For part of this year, they were Artists in Residence at Halsway Manor, the National Centre for the Folk Arts in Somerset, where they availed themselves of access to the extensive library, the material therein shaping the album and, in particular, featuring four songs from the hugely obscure archive of Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue. Since they were already in situ, they also recorded the album (the cover of which features the bloody, mounted head of a vampire stag on the cover) at the Manor.
As well as the traditional numbers, there are two covers. ‘Oh To Be A King’, a six minute traditional-flavoured song about the lot of the working man written, but, as far as I can make out, never recorded by Bill Caddick, that features striking three part harmonies, melodeon and fiddle, ending in a lengthy Kirkpatrick instrumental coda entitled ‘King of the Discoed’. The other, another lengthy track at near seven minutes isn’t a cover as such, but, intoned by Sartin, rather a setting of Olivia McCannon’s poem ‘Gurt Dog’, a variation on familiar ghost dog tales, but, here, a rather more benign mutt that guides the hapless narrator, lost on the Quantocks, safely home.
Turning to the traditional, the album opens with the sprightly strummed mandolin, violin and bass drum thump of ‘Slaves/Foul Weather Call’, Scottish Chartist leader and poet William Sankey’s 1840 call on the sturdy men of England to throw off their chains, set to music by Kirkpatrick and rounded off with the traditional Sussex hop step.
The first of the Tongue numbers comes with a galumphing, fiddle rousing arrangement of ‘False Foxes’ that incorporates the open grave superstition and again rounds off with a traditional instrumental, ‘Idbury Hill’, taken from the Bledington Morris tradition. The second from the Tongue collection, arranged by Rose, is ‘The Deadly Sands’, scraping fiddle driving a shipwrecked themed number, sometimes known as ‘The Wrecker’s Song’, concerning the sands off Minehead and those that snare and plunder the ships driven upon them. Kirkpatrick gives a droning melodeon-led arrangement to the third from the archive, ‘The Death of the Hart Royal’, a mix of hunting song and Greenwood myth originating from or before the 15th century, while the last ends the album with the funereal march ‘Death Goes A-Walking’, a possibly 17th century tale of Death leading his victims in a danse macabre, suitably provided by snatches of Morris tune ‘The Black Joke’ which also brings things to a close with a dirge-like instrumental coda.
There’s three other traditional numbers, the first being a lively reading of ‘While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’, a tale of a hare poacher and his dog, drawn from assorted variants. They cross the ocean for ‘Adieu To Bon County’, a tale of having to leave home and (false) friends to seek fortune overseas with only glass and bottle for companionship, taken from the ballads and folk songs collected by John and Alan Lomax.
The final traditional tune, sturdily sung by Sartin, is ‘One More Day’, a muscular, if not indeed funky, shanty collected by Cecil Sharp from singing sailor John Short, a Watchet legend who fought in the American Civil War and, after retiring from the sea, became the local town crier and fire brigade commander. Featuring a couple of mandolin solos it’s neatly punctuated with a snatch of a Sartin tune titled ‘Heavy Weather’, and it’s a brace of original instrumentals that provide the album’s remaining track, Sartin’s arms-linked, romping fiddle –driven ‘Harry Kitchener’s Jig’ which segues into Kirkpatrick’s no less jubilant ‘The Piper’s Rehash’ with what may well be a wheezing Cor Anglais in the background. Beastly good.
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