It’s hard to credit that Old Wow is only Sam Lee’s third album. It seems that he’s been around forever, done so much and already had such an impact on the British folk scene. The album is inspired by Sam’s other consuming passion, the natural world, and there are plenty of bucolic songs about the mythical rural idyll. These are not necessarily those songs but I do detect a pattern. The ten tracks are divided into three sections, heart, hearth and earth and it seems that the first song in each group fits the rural theme – after that you’re on your own.
The opening track, the first of the heart set is ‘The Garden Of England’ which used to be ‘The Seeds Of Love’ until Sam started work on it. It provides the album’s title, which is Sam’s reaction to nature, particularly after a close encounter with a buzzard. So far, so straightforward. Next is ‘Lay This Body Down’, followed by ‘The Moon Shines Bright’. Well, death is natural. Completing the section is ‘Soul Cake’ and Sam confuses us by beginning the song with ‘Green Grow The Rushes O’. Soul cakes were traditionally baked for Halloween and now the traditional children’s song takes on a more sinister aspect.
I’m sure that you’re familiar with Sam’s arranging style and he doesn’t stray much from it on Old Wow. At the heart of the record are piano, bass and percussion with cello on two tracks plus Hardanger fiddle and, for the first time, electric guitar played by producer Bernard Butler.
Hearth begins with ‘Spencer The Rover’ but returns to tragedy with a song I hadn’t heard before, ‘Jasper Sea’, a tale of a father and son drowning. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ doesn’t get any jollier. The opening of the earth section with ‘Turtle Dove’ is symbolic of Sam’s preoccupations. He has spoken about the decline of these birds before and the words of betrayal that he adds to the song are not for the girl being left behind. ‘Worthy Wood’ and ‘Balnafanen’ are both laments and Sam incorporates into the latter parts of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ as he does with ‘Lay This Body Down’.
Old Wow is a complex album – all of Sam’s are. It carries its own darkness and, although it is inspired by nature you will search in vain for shepherdesses and jolly ploughboys. It will grip you, however.
Artist’s website: www.samleesong.co.uk
‘Lay This Body Down’ – official video: