Demon Barbers - Faustus - Mawkin:Causley - Spiers & Boden
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Demon Barbers
+24 db
DBS001 (www.thedemonbarbers.com)

Faustus
Faustus
Navigator Records

Mawkin:Causley
Cold Ruin
Navigator Records

Spiers & Boden
Vagabond
Navigator Records (navigatorrecords.co.uk)

On the Real World release The Imagined Village (2007), a bold re-visioning of English folk music for a contemporary multi-cultural England, John Copper muses that his forbears would have been delighted to hear the old songs still being sung and picked up by new generations. This is, of course, precisely what is necessary for folk song and tradition to thrive, whether in acoustic or electric performance. The word 'revival' is certainly appropriate to the times when folk song passed into relative obscurity, as it had in Ireland; but perhaps the word 'revival' can be a bit misleading, too, as if folk artists disappear entirely between the periods defined as 'revivalist.' I believe that revivals are an opportunity to focus our attention on music 'scenes,' and in England there is now an ongoing continuum of folk music production. The folk revival of the moment is brimming with young talent and marketing savvy that is packaging folk artists with pop star imagery. All of the releases reviewed here are part of this rising wave of English folk, but I would caution against viewing them as representative of the entire movement. All of the CDs described feature predominantly male artists. But there are other important similarities: each release tips a hat to other famous revival musicians and singing folk, and each also prominently features melodeons as part of their sound.

Cold Ruin, by Mawkin:Causley, brings together the Devon singer Jim Causley, who also lends his voice to the trio The Devil's Interval, and the Essex group Mawkin. This new pairing resulted in a 6-song EP, featuring five songs and one set of tunes. Causley has a great, silken voice, and he doesn't add any rough-hewn edges to his intonation. For example, take the group's spin on "Botany Bay": the man's diction is impeccable, even when recounting this rough tale of Jim Jones' conviction to the penal colony. Mawkin let Causley's voice shine, and they back him with guitar, mandolin, fiddle and accordion. No matter the song, Mawkin are sensitive, yet they bring power when necessary. The lead-off track on Cold Ruin is John Kirkpatrick's piece "George's Son." Compared with the Brass Monkey version, Mawkin allow the swinging accordions to make up for the dynamism of the original's brass arrangement. "Mariners" (shortened from "Ye Mariners All") is credited to Martin Carthy, an undeniable lynchpin in the entire modern English folk revival. Mawkin:Causley's reading does away with the trademark Carthy arrhythmia. James Delarre's fiddle compliments Causley's voice, and even David Delarre's guitar at the end of the song favors a steady, plucked rhythm. Another alteration to material occurs with "Come My Lads," which is something of a show- stopping song with a funky rhythm on the squeezeboxes that gives the traditional tune a lift. Only upon reflection did I register that Mawkin:Causley are drummerless, like the original Steeleye Span. As a taster for a probable full-length, Cold Ruin is uncluttered, no-holds-barred excellence.

Vagabond finds Jon Boden (vocals, fiddle) and John Spiers (melodeons and concertina) returning to their duo format before the next big-folk band release of their Bellowhead project. The folk revival inspiration for Boden and Spiers on this release would appear to be Peter Bellamy, and two songs associated with Bellamy are performed: "Captain Ward," and "Rambling Robin." In "Captain Ward," Boden describes Ward's exploits, wherein Ward robs a king's ship and subsequently lays waste to the disgruntled king's pursuing forces. Each verse carries momentum, and then Spiers and Boden hang back on the chorus before jumping back into the tune; the result is akin to experiencing oceanic turbulence. Spiers and Boden carry on the sense of cinematic arrangements that are explored in Bellowhead. Take "Tom Padget"; this tale of a beggar begins as a first person narrative, but then shifts to a third person perspective where the beggar is exalted (in his hopes?) by a kindly woman as a master of men. The instrumental sets on Vagabond display Spiers and Boden's tremendous sense of rhythm. "Three Tunes" not only bursts into a Hungarian tune by the end, but there is plenty of audible stomping and, occasionally, the rustle of Spier's fingers on the keys of his instrument. The oft-performed "Speed the Plough" is paired with "The Princess Royal," and Boden starts out slowly on the fiddle at first, leaving Spiers to pick up the pace, whereupon the piece really becomes a showcase. My favorite moment on Vagabond, however, is "The Rain It Rains," a song that appears at the end of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Spiers and Boden's adaptation simply flows with spirit and humanity. Spiers and Boden are clearly masters at hiding their own hard work, as their skill is having their material practically play itself!

Faustus is the trio of Paul Sartin (oboe, violin), Saul Rose (melodeons), and Benji Kirkpatrick (guitars and bouzouki). All three members of the group sing, which adds a great deal of depth to their songs. On the self-titled Faustus, the band's repertoire is extensively researched, as well as collected from singers and broadsides. In fact, "The Old Miser" was actually recorded by one of Saul Rose's ancestors on a Topic records release, which truly highlights Faustus' continuity with tradition. Faustus really dig into their tunes and songs, so that they aren't just picking the obvious well-worn chestnuts from the past. A mournfulness rears its head on this release, beginning with "The Brisk Lad," not taken at a very brisk pace as Sartin, Rose, and Kirkpatrick harmonize over Rose's melodeon. "The New Deserter" reminded me that Fairport's version is taken from a broadside ballad; here, Faustus provide a gorgeous reading and draw out the sentiment of the narrator. The protagonist's plight of continually being pressed into the army, only to desert and be declared a fine soldier, is related with heartbreaking irony. Elsewhere, Faustus show their lively side on "The Green Willow Tree" (also familiar as "The Golden Vanity") and on two instrumental sets (in which "Aunt Crisps" positively smokes!). Faustus is a uniformly superb release, with an aura of confident maturity and clear respect for the past.

The Demon Barbers' latest EP, +24 db, significantly departs from the other CDs in this review. The group is headed by Damien Barber on English concertina, guitar, and vocals, and also features Bryony Griffith on fiddle and vocals, Will Hampson on melodeon, Lee Sykes on bass, and Ben Griffiths on drums. Two full-length albums have preceded this EP: Uncut, in 2002, and Waxed, in 2005. Both brilliant long-players feature extremely rhythmic, groove-laden versions of traditional songs and tunes. On +24 db, it is clear that The Demon Barbers know that rhythm rules the roost, as Sykes and Griffiths come on like a many-limbed, loose creature ploughing the funk. The root in acoustic instrumentation ends up sounding tremendously electric when layered on the groove. Despite their modern innovations, it should be noted that The Demon Barbers emphasize tradition mightily, as they also have a live experience that has incorporated not only clog dancers but also elements of English festival rituals. On +24 db, it is where the modern and the traditional converge that the real magic happens. The first track, "The Good Old Days," is a Damien Barber original that captures the danceability of the Demon Barber's sound with its catchy chorus and motoring drive. The EP takes a turn for the audacious with the band's version of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's "Friend of the Devil," in which a weirdling disco bass is introduced into an English 'folkified' version of the song, replete with sliding melodeon and fiddle lines. However, a real highlight of +24 db is the Martin Carthy derived "Betsy Bell." "Betsy Bell" starts out as if presaging some kind of eerie dub, and once the accordion dissonance creeps in, the listener realizes that this version will be unlike any other recorded version of this plague song. A fuzzed out bass vamp crawls through the track, and Barber and Griffith's voices float menacingly in the mix: a kind of goth-punk-folk. "Death and the Lady/Under the Rock" picks up on the same vibe, but Griffith takes over the lead vocals. The fuzz bass continues, and there is a squeezebox rave-up that brings the whole experience to its conclusion, by which time it is apparent that The Demon Barbers have wrought something truly new and unique.

And so we have this momentary picture of some of the artists in the current English folk revival. The respect for tradition is the firm foundation for all of these releases, acknowledged in the song choices and liner notes. The youthful exuberance and research is leading to albums that are innovative with the classics, and, even better, the sense that more promising music is on the way. - Lee Blackstone

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