Bush Gothic are a new name to me, but I was instantly attracted to their third album Beyond The Pale by their choice of songs and settings by the like of Henry Lawson and Judith Wright. When the album first hit my hi-fi, though, I was a little taken aback at the adventurousness of their arrangements and some of the liberties they take with other people’s verse. Having lived with the album for a while, though, there are a couple of tracks I’ve learned to love and many more that I now enjoy.
Bush Gothic are Jenny M. Thomas (lead vocals, violin, viola, banjo mandolin, piano and banjo); Dan Witton (lead vocals on ‘Ballad Of 1891’, backing vocals, double bass and piano); and Chris Lewis (backing vocals, drums and percussion, piano). They’re joined here by the Lonely String Quartet (Jason Bunn, viola; Luke Severn, cello; Sarah Curro and Zoe Black, violin).
- ‘Jim Jones’ (a.k.a. ‘Jim Jones Of Botany Bay’) is a reasonably well-known traditional ballad (Roud 5478) probably dating to the early 19th century. Despite a curious (but somewhat typical) lyrical/melodic interposition between the second and third verses, we’re in fairly familiar folk-rock territory here, though Bush Gothic have a voice all their own.
- ‘Pub With No Beer’ has a curious history. It was originally a 1942 (?) poem by Dan Sheehan (included in his collection Songs From The Canefields) called ‘A Pub Without Beer’. It recounted the devastating experience of being told by a landlady in Ingham that all the pub’s beer had been drunk by a party of US soldiers the previous night (shades of ‘The Second Front Song’!), reducing him to expressing his feelings in verse over a glass of wine.
Somehow (accounts vary as to exactly how) the poem got the attention of Gordon Parsons, who rewrote it and put a tune to it rather similar to Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’. That (minus a verse that was considered a little racy) is the version you might remember (if you’re as decrepit as I am) from the 1950s, sung by Slim Dusty as a relaxed, mock-tragic country song.
Jenny M. Thomas’s arrangement reverts to the Sheehan lyric, though she has tweaked the words as well as adding to the well-known tune – indeed, on the first hearing I was well into the song before I realized that the Parsons tune was still in there. Some stanzas of Sheehan’s poem have a self-consciously dated tone – “Oh, you brew of brown barley, what charm is thine? / ’Neath thy spell men grow happy and cease to repine” – and perhaps that has inspired the melodramatic strings and percussion of the arrangement. On several hearings, I found I quite liked it, but some may find a more conventional arrangement more sympathetic.
- ‘Andy’s Gone With Cattle’ adapts some extracts from the poem by Henry Lawson (1867-1922), a very well-known writer of verse and fiction. Two tunes, credited to Jenny M. Thomas, are used here to carry more or less the same sets of words, and very attractive they are too. In fact the second tune resembles the Irish tune ‘Túirne Mháíre’, the probable basis for tunes associated with ‘The Recruited Collier’ and ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, among others.
- The lyric to ‘Ballad Of 1891’, about the conflict between squatters and striking shearers, was written in 1950 by Helen Palmer and set to music by Doreen Bridges (nee Jacobs). Doreen Bridges is, it seems, the grandmother of Dan Whitton, who arranged and takes lead vocal on the song. A fine song.
- Lyrically, ‘Country Town’ is a short and adapted extract from the poem by Judith Wright (1915-2000), put to music by Jenny M. Thomas. The removal of direct references to the (pre-)history of the town gives the lyric a very different, abstract feel, augmented by an ambitious orchestration that strongly suggests the urbanization of a region.
- ‘Ben Hall Sleeps’ is a sombre, atmospheric instrumental interlude that serves as an introduction to the following track.
- ‘Streets Of Forbes’ is one of the better-known songs on the album, not least through the version by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick (and, if I remember correctly, a Penguin collection of Australian folk songs). And a personal favourite, as it happens. The lyric is slightly different to the one brought over to England by Trevor Lucas in the 1960s, but it’s a very effective and affecting version.
- ‘Past Carin’ (sic) is Steve Ashley’s setting for the Bushwhackers of a powerful poem by Henry Lawson. Thematically, the lyric is not dissimilar to Dylan’s ‘North Country Blues’, which of course it predates by many decades. For me, the opening vocal harmonies are the high point of the record, and this the standout track. Very impressive.
- For some reason, there seem to be an awful lot of songs about Gundagai. ‘Road To Gundagai’ (a.k.a. ‘Along The Road To Gundagai’) was written by Jack O’Hagan in 1922. There are some very nice harmonies on a sparse, truncated version of this nostalgic song, not to be confused with the well-known Banjo Patterson poem with a similar title.
- ‘The London Convict Maid’ is a broadside ballad set to music by Jenny M. Thomas, very effectively.
- ‘Mines Of Australia’ is also an anonymous lyric set to music by Jenny M. Thomas: in this arrangement, the effect is nearer to a pop ballad than a folk tune, but it’s well done.
- ‘Brings Us Andy’ revisits ‘Andy’s Gone With Cattle’ with a very short extract using the tune that reminds me of ‘Túirne Mháíre’. It’s a miniature gem, a perfect closer for a very interesting album. Though it wouldn’t surprise me in future to hear a version sung around the clubs that combined this tune with a full set of words.
Beyond The Pale is released in the UK on July 29 2022 and Bush Gothic have a number of UK dates between July 30th and August 14th. (See https://www.bushgothic.com/live.html.) Their radical reworkings won’t be to everyone’s taste, but they’re certainly worth a look/listen.
Artists’ website: www.bushgothic.com
‘Past Carin” – live: