Out On The Spree is the first full album Camus have released in several years, and only the fourth since the band was formed in the 1980s. Prolific they might not be, but this album suggests that while their recorded output might lack quantity, it’s certainly not lacking in quality.
Re-launched a four-piece in 2021, Camus consists of Greg Smith on fiddle, David Sommerville on Northumbrian pipes and keyboards, Brian Cleary on guitar and guitar-bouzouki, and Andrew Burn on melodeons and Northumbrian pipes. The name has nothing to do with French existentialist literature – which is probably just as well – but is taken from a village in County Galway. Their music draws on a range of influences, including Northumberland, Ireland, Shetland, and the USA, often influenced by the personal and family backgrounds of the band members.
A striking aspect of the line-up is the presence of two Northumbrian pipers, particularly in a band from Cambridge! It’s fitting then, that a set of two Northumbrian pipe tunes gets the album started. ‘Bonny Tweedside’ is jig with a haunting feel, and very much led by the pipes. The reel ‘Cuckold Come Out Of The Amfrey’, is livelier, with guitar and melodeon more prominent as accompaniment. Two great tunes, and a strong opening track.
The first song of the album follows, as Brian reworks a traditional Irish ballad ‘Apron Of Flowers’. The song starts as a regular story of unrequited love, which left me asking why the sleeve notes describe it as mysterious. The answer came later, as the hero sets out to deal with his grief by picking certain flowers until he has a whole apron of them. The meaning of that isn’t at all clear, and I wonder if some details had been lost by the time Northern Irish civil servant and song collector Sam Henry collected this version. Complete or not, it’s a good song, well performed.
Two very English dance tunes follow. ‘The Cherry Tree’, a march and ‘Mayday’, a polka, were both composed by Andrew to celebrate the arrival of Spring. Andrew starts the track with a short melodeon solo, and this remains the main instrument throughout.
‘Back On The Nightshift’ is a lament for the industrial Northeast, with a suitably sad tone. Andrew wrote this song, drawing on the life of his Grandad, a foreman at the Hartlepool steelworks, left unemployed and reduced to using a pawnbroker to keep the electricity on, when the works closed. The track begins and ends with poignant sequences of solo Northumbrian pipes.
The melancholy pipe music continues into the first of the two tunes that make up the next track. ‘Boulavogue’ is a traditional Irish air, played by David and Andrew on Northumbrian pipes. Its name comes from a village in Wexford, that played a prominent role in The United Irishmen’s rising in 1798. The air is best known as the tune for a ballad commemorating the local rebel leaders, summarily executed in the predictably vicious crackdown that followed the rebel defeat. ‘Boulanvogue’ has a melancholic beauty, but the mood lifts for the second tune. ‘Mr. Somerville’s Fancy’ is a 3/2 hornpipe, with which Andrew won the composition championship in the 2018 Northumbrian Piper’s Society competitions.
A song by Brian follows. ‘The Roaring Boys’ is an enjoyable and upbeat song, that tells of sailors in a Nineteenth Century New England tavern, out for a good time before setting sail the next morning. Brian’s lyrics create a vividly drawn rogue’s gallery of characters, while his guitar playing strikes a suitably American, fingerpicking rhythm. The title, Out on the Spree is taken from this track.
The American theme continues with a set of old timey fiddle tunes – ‘Grasshopper Sitting On A Sweet Potato Vine’, ‘Julianne Johnson’, and ‘Needlecase’. The first tune begins with a melodion solo, before the fiddle takes the lead. It’s taken a while for Greg to take the lead role on a track, but it’s worth the wait. His musical experience includes Bluegrass, which shows in his technique here. The intricate fiddle playing in the second tune is particularly enjoyable. All three tunes are traditional and make a great set.
The Next up is a new arrangement of a very familiar call and reply song, ‘The Keeper’. Folk songs often have hidden meanings and are less innocent than they seem. ‘The Keeper’ helped by a little editing by Cecil Sharp, came to be seen as innocent enough for many of us to have learned it at primary school. But it doesn’t take much thought to realise that the quarry the keeper is stalking aren’t does but women. I wonder what our very correct music teacher would have thought, if she’d realised that she was teaching us to sing a song about sexual pursuit! Camus have emphasised the dark side here, by restoring lines removed by Sharp. The devilishly catchy tune has also been tweaked with the last verse switched into a minor key, to add some menace. They’ve also added a line at the end, allowing the keeper’s quarry to fight back.
In his song ‘Bright Groves’, Dublin born Brian draws on the experience of an ancestor, who sailed to America in search of a better life. On arrival, he finds himself caught up in the US Civil War and wanting to return to “The Bright Groves Of Erin”, while fearing burial on a foreign field. Brian’s ancestor sailed to New York and was at least on the right side of history. Other migrants arrived in the South, and, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the two Irish Brigades met on opposing sides. Guitar and fiddle open the track and are the main accompaniment for a sad and poignant song.
Greg draws on his experience of being taught by the legendary Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson, for the set of four Shetland fiddle tunes that brings Out on a Spree to a close. The first tune ‘Auld Swaara’ is a beautiful and melancholy air, imitating the swell of the sea that has claimed the lives of so many fishermen. These lost souls were remembered only by their old woollen vests, known locally as swaara. The tempo then picks up and three cracking reels – ‘Sail Her Over The Raftree’, ‘De’il Stick the Minster’, and ‘Kale and Knockit Caorn’ – provide the rousing finale the album deserves.
Out on a Spree is a thoughtful and understated album. There are no grand gestures, but the musicianship is top class throughout, and the range of influences and experiences drawn upon add variety and interest. Throughout, I found it engaging and very enjoyable. Camus are new to me, but I’m very pleased to have found them.
Artist website: https://camus.net
‘Bonny Tweedside’ – official video;
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