An Anglo-Irish alt-folk four piece headed up by singer-guitarist Donal Rogers and featuring Eliza Marshall on flutes (European and Indian) and whistles, electric harp player Ellie Turner and Joe Danks providing bodhran, percussion and tenor guitar, Playing For Luck marks their fourth studio outing and the first to expand their sound with the use of driving drums, piano and African percussion. As such, there’s often a strong echo of 70s progressive folk, an early case in point being with the light Al Stewart shuffle of ‘The Medication Show’, its harp ripples and Irish reel flavoured flute flourishes, which, with lyrics referencing monocled dandies, Waterloo and flappers, takes a playful poke at political nostalgia, its tenor underscored by the working title of ‘The Brexit Charleston’. Similarly, the spirit of a jazzier Jethro Tull dances across ‘Like My Enemy’ although the melodic body of the track itself hews closer to Fleetwood Mac and boasts a glorious surging poppy chorus. There’s even a line about a ‘blackened Jedi’.
It opens in intoxicating mood with the airy piano waltzing, bodhran-massaged ‘The Strangler’, a moody, almost Gallic cabaret vibe (think Walker, Aznavour, Brubeck) to a dark-tinged lyric about jealousy and fate from whence comes the album title. ‘Devil’s Need’ places the instrumental focus on fingerpicked acoustic for an evocation of nervy late 60s folk blues, again illustrating their ability to incorporate a soaring chorus before ebbing back into the more atmospheric musical stream, here embellished with percussive rumbles and whispered lines.
At five minutes, a bruised heart and longing number, ‘The Thief’ offers the longest track, the contrast between restrained, melancholic verse and urgent, drum-driven chorus again turning thoughts towards Fleetwood Mac though you might also discern echoes of The Moody Blues too. There’s further ebullience to be found on ‘Trees’, the album centrepiece, with its staccato flutes, propulsive harp and drums and a lyric (possibly rooted in the band’s concerns for mental illness) about being lost and in need of rescue, its soaring melodic pop wings in striking contrast to the preceding introspective intimacy of ‘Sometimes Home’ where Rogers sings how “sometimes home is just a familiar face”.
Again recalling the heady progressive folk sounds of the late 60s/early 70s, the simple, stately piano and woodwind intro to ‘Out There’ hints at Procol Harum, the track swelling midway on its “Is anybody out there/Can anyone see me here” refrain with its persistent piano notes, drum thunder and spiralling woodwind.
As befits the title, with, harp ripples, Marshall on bansuri and African click percussion there’s a dryness to Waiting For The Rain, a song less about climatic conditions than a political metaphor about the anticipation of a relief that never comes and “a promise we cannot buy”. The hand percussion African textures and dancing flutes are even more prominent for the livelier jig ‘Falling Down’ with its tumbling rhythms and a lyric that calls on a Juju woman to “take me in your charms and hold me”.
The album closes with, first, the pastoral ‘Colder’, a not immediately obvious number about the old beyond the years bone and soul weariness of homelessness and living on the streets as winter closes in and the increasing difficulty of balancing on the precipice. However, it ends not on despair, but with hope on the rousing piano-led anthemic arms-linked, all sing together swayalong ‘Liberty’ to a future where “you’ll build your house in the morning light to be free” and the final flourish of “we’ll raise you a cup of liberty, to the people, to the land and to you”.
Luck has nothing to do with it, this sets a very high bar for the next twelve months.
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‘The Strangler’ – live studio recording: