SAM SWEENEY – Escape That (Hudson Records HUD032CD)

Escape ThatSome artists raise expectations. They inspire confidence that anything with their name on it, is going to be good. For me, Sam Sweeney is such an artist, and I’m happy to report that Escape That didn’t disappoint. Not that I’m saying that this is a predictable album, because it feels very different from his last solo recording, 2020’s Unearth Repeat. This is Sam’s first entirely self-composed album and is a major advance in his development as a composer and arranger, helped by a new approach to composition.

During lockdown, Sam started to compose by laying down a chord structure, then improvising over it. The recording was then reviewed and anything that was a hook stayed, while everything else was removed. The hooks would then be linked together to form a dance tune. All this was done with guitars and synthesisers before the results were translated into fiddle tunes.

Another important point is that Sam regards this as his most personal work to date. The inspirations are personal, with each of the twelve tunes representing a person or situation in his life. It’s also personal in a stylistic way. Sam has spoken of how his approach to traditional music has developed, from believing it should be kept pure and free of other influences, to appreciating the value of innovation. On Escape That he has allowed himself to connect with music he loved in his youth and blend English dance music with pop hooks and aesthetics. What results is a series of beautiful English dance tunes, infused with a contemporary edge. The talented backing musicians who worked on Unearth Repeat return for this album. All play a part, but I particularly enjoyed the electric guitar work of Louis Campbell, a young guitarist recruited after Sam taught him at The Youth Folk Ensemble.

In fact, a driving electric guitar sequence starts the opening track, ‘Ruby’, before a lively fiddle tune takes over. This is a strong opener, with a great hook to the central melody. ‘Want to Fly Want to Flee’ has a gentle start, underpinned by good bass playing by Ben Nicholls The tempo then picks up as the tune develops.

The inspirations behind the tunes aren’t revealed, and the quizzical titles don’t give much away. An exception might be the third track, ‘Feet Together Jump’. That suggests a dance connection and, what sounds like improvised percussion, beats a rhythm like percussive dance steps.

The title track has a more acoustic feel, before another burst of electric guitar heralds a harder closing sequence. ‘Pink Steps’ is a delightful tune. The early part is as close as we get to a fiddle solo, before other instruments join in.

‘Deep Water Shallow (End)’ and ‘Under Gigantic Clouds’ are upbeat, cheerful tunes. The former is probably the most electric track, with David MacKay’s electric keyboard playing a prominent role. ‘Westering’ features rhythmic electric keyboard playing that might represent falling rain.

‘Nightshifting/Atlantica’, is the only two tune track, and probably the most complex with a synth sequence as one tune gives way to another. Both are great tunes. ‘Yoddin’ has a lazy, dreamy feel, and is a beautiful melody.

Escape That ends with ‘Don’t Worry, Trains’. ‘Ruby’ was a strong opener, and this rousing, anthemic tune works well as a finale.

Put simply, this is a very fine album from one of the great talents of the contemporary English folk scene. Appropriately, the fiddle used is a link to another great fiddler, having been made for the late Dave Swarbrick. It was Swarbrick’s slightly wild style that helped to attract Sam to playing folk music, but he’s developed a very different playing style. Sam’s fiddling is more gentle and sedate, which is beautiful in itself, but I think combines brilliantly with the harder, rockier sounds on this album.

English dance music doesn’t have the immediate impact of its Scots and Irish counterparts, but it has a delicate beauty that rewards careful listening. Escape That keeps the beauty while making it feel fresh and relevant. This is an album that extends the boundaries of what folk music can be. If you like English dance music, you should like this. If you’ve not got into it yet, well this could be a perfect place to start.

Graham Brown

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