The James Brothers aren’t brothers, of course. They are James Fagan and Jamie McClennan and nowhere near as mean as the look on the cover. James is Australian but it might be less well-known that Jamie was born in New Zealand – so it was just a matter of time before they got together to record some “Colonial Roots Music”.
A couple of the songs are familiar but the majority are gleaned from collections that will be familiar in the antipodes but unknown in the northern hemisphere. The opener, ‘Run Away Wilder’ comes from a book of poetry called Black Billy Tea – New Zealand Ballads by Joe Charles with a tune by Fagan and McClennan. Its subject is George Wilder, a very polite burglar still known to be around in 2009.
Another source is Shanties By The Way, a collection of New Zealand ballads. Some, like ‘The Voyage Of The Buffalo’ are definitely sea songs but ‘Shearing’s Coming Round’ is clearly a dry-land work song anticipating the muster of shearers. It was written by Irish émigré David McKee Wright around the turn of the 19th century and has the ring of authenticity. Bill Scott is another author and ballad collector whose work is liberated. His ‘Hey Rain’ is a typically spirited Australian reaction to the coming of the rainy season.
The best known songs here are Trevor Lucas’ ‘The Ballad Of Ned Kelly’, ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ written by Tim Finn in his Split Enz days and Michael O’Rourke’s melancholy ‘The Poison Train’, a meditation of the death of rural communities. The James Brothers have a freedom of spirit that we seem to associate with down under – or is that a cliché? Actually, I don’t mind if it is, this is a fine album.
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Artists’ website: www.thejamesbrothers.co.uk
‘Hey Rain’ – live: