Let me start by confessing that I never quite took to their hugely acclaimed 2015 debut, but the arrival of their English Folk Field Recordings collaborative project prompted a reassessment and, with the arrival of their own second album, I’ve become a decided convert.
I won’t bother going over the usual stuff regarding their no-nonsense raw and unvarnished approach to folk, whether it be traditional numbers or their own, or singer Nicola Kearey’s abrasive in your face East End vocals, both of which firmly set them apart from their peers, rather let’s address what they’ve done with it this time around, introducing new electronic sounds but still balancing familiar and more obscure traditional numbers with self-penned material focused around those on the peripheries of society, rituals, the way the past repeats itself and the power to change ourselves and the world in which we live.
That idea of breaking free of the cycle underpins the album’s uncompromising, forceful opening stomp ‘Over Again’, Simon Foote’s thumping bass drum beat underpinning Ian Carter’s urgent circling resonator guitar riff as Kearey raises blisters on the la la la la chorus. The first of the traditional numbers comes with the ‘Weaving Song’, a Scottish ballad celebrating the weaver’s craftsmanship taken, on acoustic guitar and Ellie Wilson’s fiddle, at a similarly jaunty pace as when Sandra Kerr (mother of Nancy) and John Faulkner performed it on Bagpuss back in 1974.
Alternating sources again, built on a slow, stately melody, Kearey’s echoey vocals accompanied by deep and heady accordion drone and violin, ‘Witch Bottle’ is an original number that takes its title from a 17th century ritual about stoneware containers used to ward off spells, which, in turn, heralds the clumping, breathless pace of the recorder and fiddle lashed ‘White Copper Alley’, a 19th century account of a woman who, driven to prostitution, steals one of her clients’ watch and wallet to buy medicine for her sick son, the track coming to strikingly abrupt halt on the word “dead”.
Taken at a slow, almost funereal march and heavily electronic with Fran Foote’s accordion drone, the haunting title track ballad follows, making effective use of Autotune on Kearey’s voice even if it does slightly obscure the lyrics, which, in the line about “when the hour is come”, seem to be about death. The vocals are again treated on ‘100,000 Years’ to give them a distant, echoey feel in keeping with the brooding sonic aura engendered by the handclap percussion and the unsettling swirls of guitar, drone, violin, keys and recorder.
As any good folkie knows, the ‘Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’ is a traditional dance tune, one of the oldest known, a jig that gradually builds in tempo and here given a fairly straightforward treatment, although the fiddle-led galumphing and whistle does remind me of Stackridge.
Like the album opener, the traditional highwayman song ‘Roving Blade’ is another urgent rhythm driven by Carter’s nervy riffs and Kearey’s forceful delivery, but then the ambience changes dramatically for what is possibly the album’s most striking number. Although the title and idea are similar, ‘Unquiet Grave’ is not the much-covered traditional song but a band original sung, essentially about remembering the buried past, unaccompanied as Kearey takes on the voice of a corpse unable to rest because of the feet trampling the earth above them, unable to move and wasting away “day by sorry day”. It is, quite, simply, one of the most chilling songs I’ve ever heard.
It’s back to tradition, in form and inspiration if not actuality, for the story-song ‘Blind Beggar Of Bethnal Green’, an acoustic waltzing number (the title part referencing the famous East End pub where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell) retelling the legend of how Simon de Montford, a local knight, was blinded in a battle and subsequently became a beggar until found and taken in by a noblewoman, whom he married and with whom he had a daughter, Besse.
The last of the original numbers, ‘Red Carnation’, a sparse reverb and emotion-soaked song of farewell, is sandwiched between two traditional tunes. The first, the call and response shanty ‘Poor Old Horse’ is sung a cappella, Kearey providing the verses and everyone joining rowdily in for the chorus response, the album ending on an electronic fog of pulsing synth and claps like firewood crackles enshrouding the distant ghostly vocals as they dismantle ‘As I Roved Out’ and recraft it for a post-apocalypse folk vision. In speaking of the idea behind the album Kearey talks about thematically focusing on “English stuff”, because it’s weird, dark, surprising, unashamedly odd and has a personality of its own. She could equally be describing the band.
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‘As I Roved Out’ – official video: