Roly Witherow is a well known and successful composer for film and television but he is now making his mark with the critics in quite a different field. His first solo album, Ballads And Yarns, is a collection of modern and traditional folk songs recorded in his home studio in Devon and mixed in Brazil, his wife’s native country. The whole story is told in the third track.
Roly hasn’t lost any of his vision and sense of the dramatic in making this album. It opens with a short instrumental ‘Forward’ which begins with deep doomy drones, passes through a string section before ending with a solo guitar. As an overture to the album it does its job perfectly. Next is the traditional ‘Lord Franklin’ in which Roly indulges his taste for big percussion and shimmering electric guitars. His own composition, ‘Wedding Song’ begins with a Devon shanty collective singing the song they performed at his wedding and then takes off into the stratosphere. There’s lots more percussion, both big and small, with strings and then electric guitar taking up the song. And there’s more. Old fashioned synths of the kind that Eno would play compete with latin rhythms which develop into the sort of party sounds that happen when the formal part of the reception is over. There’s a great little bass riff there, too – it’s something of a masterpiece.
Now we go back to the tradition with ‘Row Bullies Row’. It’s not folk-rock in the accepted sense but if any such band hears Ballads And Yarns they might have thoughts on a new direction. As with ‘Wedding Song’ there is a lot happening but nothing outstays its welcome and that could be a disappointment: I love the snare drum and dirty electric guitar here but, on reflection, Roly judges it to a nicety. Then there is a short instrumental, ‘Carousel’, which sound just how you would expect it to – except for the synths, perhaps. Next comes poetry: ‘’Ow Bist Satan’ was written by Louis Thompson and Lily Hurdman about whom I can find nothing that I’d care to commit to in writing and is delivered by Roly in an accent so thick you could spread it on toast.
‘Derry Gaol’ is accompanied on bass, a suitably solemn rendition. At the foot of the scaffold, electric guitar comes in for a short instrumental break and I was expecting a jolly coda as the reprieve was granted but that would be too obvious. The set closes with ‘Paean To Earthly Things’ which basically says that we are nothing but dust. It’s not a cheery way to end but it will make you stop and think.
Ballads And Yarns is…sometimes strange, often downbeat and sometimes uplifting. It draws together so many styles and ideas, almost too many for one album to hold. I’ll say this: once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it.
Artist’s website: https://www.rolywitherow.com/personal-work
‘Row Bullies Row’ – official video: