Bellowhead - Hedonism
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Matachin (2008)
Hedonism (2010)
Navigator Records (

Gather round, as we tour this empty theater-space, this haunted bit of Drury Lane. Watch the shadows closely. You might hear a bit of brass, a bit of comic laughter, and even a bit of murder scraping across the floorboards. After which, we’ll all head down to the pub, dressed in our finest Victorian black. And so it goes as we wheeze off into the night: victims of history, the Bellowhead sound in a nutshell.

Back in 2006 when Bellowhead convened with their full debut CD Burlesque, the band was clearly going to mine the English tradition in a unique way, infusing the folk canon with full-on arrangements that were part cabaret, part theatrical pit-band, part disco-funk-travesty. John Spiers (melodeon and concertina) and Jon Boden (lead vocals and fiddle) were well on their way as a folk duo, releasing one tasty album after another; the Bellowhead project draped their musicianship with a bevy of like-minded young folk in the burgeoning English folk re-revival. Pipes, bouzouki, oboe, cello, fiddles and more fiddles, and a brass section added dash, flair, and outright drama to superbly selected folk tunes such as “Jordan” and “Death and the Lady.”

Matachin was the group’s second release, and to these ears it felt a little rushed. It was clear that the band excelled at the carefully-crafted, theatrical setting, as evidenced on Burlesque’s “Rigs of the Time,” the turn-on-a-dime dance grooves of “Fire Marengo,” and the motoring of “Hopkinson’s Favorite.” As a sophomore effort, Matachin seemed somewhat comfortable to turn the first album’s novelty into a formula, with somewhat diminishing returns. Matachin sounds slightly flatter, and the inclusion of the three relatively useless “Vignettes” merely felt like filler. I’d suggest that Matachin sounds like a bit of a stop-gap: while the creativity feels a bit tired (the buzz-like kazoo-ing sounds on “Kafoozalum/The Priest’s Miss” sound like a magician diving deep into his hat for the last tricks), Bellowhead seemed dead-set on heightening the theatrical ambiance of the band. Hence the six-minute “Cholera Camp” (a Peter Bellamy treatment of a Kipling poem) brings the drama of wasting away, while “Spectre Review” (a German song about a band comprised of the risen dead) sounds the modernist avant-garde. The treatment of “Bruton Town” is very good; floating oboe and delicate brass provide an effective undercurrent to the traditional tale of two brothers who murder their sister’s overly affectionate servant. And cello/fiddle player Rachael McShane’s tune “Trip to Bucharest,” paired with Boden’s “The Flight of the Folk Mutants Parts 1 & 2” show that Bellowhead don’t have to rely on traditional melodies to take flight. Overall, Matachin’s not a bad album; far from it, but one that sounds a bit wan compared to the expectations raised from Burlesque.

Two years on, and Hedonism rears its beautiful, bold head. The band and various hangers-on appear poised between lust and melancholy on the cover of the album, draped around as if they might be aping The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy & the Lash but couldn’t quite bother: they’re all either in some barroom blowout, or post-theatrical backstage wallow. Bellowhead’s confidence positively bubbles to the fore, as the album bangs off with a stomping “New York Girls.”

But with “A-Begging I Will Go,” Bellowhead seem to have hit their sweet spot. Cinematic? Check. Catchy chorus? Check. Beat reminiscent of punk where it counts? Check. Sudden disco-funk infusion (cue strings, and Ed Neuhauser’s funky tuba) that swirls out of nowhere, leading to a climactic finish? Check and double-check. Everyone’s playing and singing is positively invigorated, and you know by now that Hedonism is on par with Burlesque. “Cross-Eyed and Chinless” clinches it, really; the band goes to town with this traditional tune, glorious in its rumpty-tumpty English sound. Pete Flood deserves special mention as the band’s agile percussionist – he’s picked up on his arrangements, and he is crucial to the clanking and driving momentum of this album.

It’s safe to say that every song and tune on Hedonism is a positive highlight. “Broomfield Hill” features more of the rolling British sound, spacey and pastoral at times. “The Hand Weaver and the Factory Maid” and “Captain Wedderburn” (where Boden’s voice is beautifully mirrored by glistening horn-lines and McShane’s singing) both have the kind of musical show-number quality at which Bellowhead excels. It therefore comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the group turns their collective hands to Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” for a theatrical tour-de-force, Boden proving especially strong at holding his vocal’s high register and standing out amidst the power of the band.

I’m sure some listeners might balk at “Little Sally Racket,” probably the most ‘punk’ track that Bellowhead have ever recorded, with shouted call-and-response, surf-guitar, bowed dissonance, and percussive interludes from Flood. But at least Bellowhead indicate that they’re not going to rest on their laurels, and I for one appreciate the variety. All’s well that ends well with “Yarmouth Town,” and you think: ah yes, all is right with the world. I’m drunk on this Bellowhead album; the giddiness is contagious - Lee Blackstone

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cd cover

"A Begging I Will Go"


CD available from cdRoots

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