We have waited a long while for Harp & A Monkey’s fourth album but, despite the hints they dropped, this may not be the album some of us were expecting. No matter for the band have gone back to their roots with a collection of songs that were popular during, and sometimes written during the nineteenth century. Of course, most of the material within The Victorians has been seriously interfered with by Martin Purdy, Simon Jones and Andy Smith but that is to be expected. These are, or were, tavern songs, parlour songs and sometimes even folk songs mostly from around their home town of Manchester. The illustration on the cover is that symbol of Victorian progress, the Peppered Moth, sometimes called the Manchester Moth which we all learned about in school.
The opening track is ‘A Naked Man In Paradise’, proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. It tells the story of a man who dived into the Irwell to rescue survivors of a capsized ship. While he was thus engaged somebody stole his clothes and he later died of pneumonia. I can’t help but think that there is a moral for our times in there.
Next is ‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’ which was sung regularly when I was a lad and was a favourite of mine. I always assumed that it was traditional but I now learn that the tune was written by Dave Moran of ‘Bedlam Boys’ fame. I’m not sure that I like the chaps’ interference with this song but I’ll let them off in gratitude for putting the song into my record collection. They move to Yorkshire for ‘Jolly Grinder’ – a variant of ‘The Miller Of Dee’ story but not terribly jolly – and ‘Glossop Road’. Again, I always believed that the latter was traditional but I now know that it was written in the 1860s. It’s great to have it in the collection, too. Finally, we have ‘Victorians’, a summary of 19th century themes including science and the acquisition of wealth, and ‘Bonnie England’, which illustrates how very little things have changed in the last century or so.
On a first casual listen the arrangements seemed rather minimal but actually they are quite complex. We’re not given much information in the packaging but there’s accordion, guitar, banjo, harp and viola in there with Martin’s glockenspiel providing the top notes and I suspect that electronics play a part in the album’s production number, ‘Ten Shilling Wife’. On top of that there are bits of “field recordings” – water, the creaking of oars and background conversation providing ambience.
The Victorians could well be Harp & A Monkey’s finest hour but I should listen to their other albums again just to be sure.
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‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’: