Some artists wrap hard-hitting words up in pretty tunes but Jez Hellard has gone one further and wrapped up a set of serious songs in pretty pictures and left his listeners to figure it out for themselves. Clever. As is my habit, I stuck the CD in the player when I took the car for its weekly walk, listening without looking at the notes. I was expecting a collection of Jez’s original songs but then I recognised a song and then another but the thing that struck me was how well the album worked contrasting the old and the new. It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered that Jez had written only one song on The Fruitful Fells and I was even more impressed at the way he’d put the album together.

The two threads running through the album are love of the open country and the problems of the modern world. The first track, ‘Gonna Rise Again’, is by Si Khan and, although I hadn’t heard it before I really should have recognised the authorship. Jez sings the song for his grandfather and with it anchors one of the record’s themes. The second thread is tied down by Nathan Ball’s ‘McDonalds For The Mind’, an attack on the tabloid press and the media in general.

‘Spring Wind’, by Greg Brown, takes the ideas of Si Khan’s song in a different direction, regretting advancing age and the desecration of the planet. The next song bridges the two themes. It’s ‘Big Steamers’ from the Kipling/Bellamy songwriting team and at first hearing I thought that Jez had cleverly changed a line when he sings of ships bringing our food “from Melbourne, Quebec and Vancouver” and tells us to find them at “Hobart, Hong Kong and Bombay” – that’s one for Brexit, I thought. Wrong! That’s exactly what Rudyard wrote and how right he was and is – with the possible exception of Hong Kong.

The one original song is the long ‘Black Mirror’s Got You’ and, unless you’ve avoided all popular culture for the last few years, you’ll know the derivation of the title. It’s about the dangers of mobile technology and social media and it’s a great song but I fear that the warning is already far too late. Jez immediately contrasts this terrible vision with a soft, almost wistful, reading of Ewan MacColl’s swansong, ‘The Joy Of Living’, giving the song a new dimension.

It’s back to contemporary politics with ‘Foodbanks & Ferraris’ written by Sally Ironmonger and Brian Carter and another dip into history with Robb Johnson’s ‘Home By Christmas’ which, while centred on Paschendaele, also looks back to the Afghan Wars and forwards to the present day. Before you get too depressed Jez gives us ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’ dedicated in part to Dick Gaughan, which supplies the album title. ‘For The Sake Of Day’ and ‘The Sights And Sounds Of London Town’ both look at aspects of contemporary like; the latter kicking over a few rocks to see what crawls out.

‘For Mr. Thomas’ and ‘October Song’ are both by Robin Williamson and the album closes with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ and you may think that the world isn’t such a rotten place, after all.

The Djukella Orchestra are an eight-piece multi-instrumental collective who can play with great restraint or rock it out with the best. Nye Parsons plays double bass on almost every track and Piotr Jordan, Alastair Caplin and James Patrick Gavin share violin and viola. On the bigger numbers we hear Tommie Black-Roff’s accordion and Ewan Bleach’s clarinet or Mathew Pharoah’s percussion and Dominic Henderson’s low whistle. Jez decorates several songs with harmonica but everything is held firmly in place. It’s been far too long since we heard any new music from Jez and The Fruitful Fells is such a welcome return. It doesn’t disappoint.

 Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘For Mr. Thomas’ – solo in the garden: