Bellowhead - Broadside
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The return of the magnificent folk-big-band Bellowhead heralds a bid for the current English folk scene to go mainstream. At this point in their now-legendary saga, Bellowhead have married inventive rearrangements of folk tunes, theatrical gumption, disco-funk, and a spirit of rebellion into a truly distinct sound. The production (by John Leckie, who has worked with John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Dr. John, and Radiohead) on their latest missive, Broadside, probably comes the closest yet to doing Bellowhead justice. After all, with Bellowhead we are talking about a full horn section playing off cello, melodeon, concertina, fiddles galore, bouzouki, oboe, banjo, and human voices. While I was wowed by 2010’s Hedonism, that great album practically sounds flat compared to the palette on display on Broadside. Best yet, you can actually hear Jon Boden singing clearly amidst all the goings-on.

And there is a lot going-on here. After a quiet introduction, “Byker Hill” bursts in with whooping shouts by both Boden and the band. Rather than the famous arrangement by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick with its tricky syncopated rhythm, the band has opted for another version by the Wilson family. The result is a stomper, a declaration of intent, and it raises the stakes for the rest of Broadside. “The Old Dun Cow” follows, and more than delivers: an ominous tuba line sets the stage for this well-known song of a pub burning down, while everyone drinks themselves into oblivion.

At first, Boden’s telling of the tale is set against the beat, adding a clever drop of funk. The tune is punctuated by bursts of brass as dialogue is exchanged around the bar, and the music dies down for a moment so we can hear the sound of flames licking against wood. With cries of ‘Fire!’ and a wailing sax solo, we’re off as Bellowhead takes flight the only way this band can; it is really hard for the listener not to smile.

“Roll the Woodpile Down” is an exuberant shanty that Bellowhead borrow from the American Southern tradition; “10,000 Miles Away” brings banjo picking and pop gloss to this popular folk tune; and “The Dockside Rant/Sailing With the Tide,” original tunes written by Jon Boden, joins the long list of just-try-to-sit-still instrumental sets of the band.

Worth mentioning is percussionist Pete Flood’s growth as an arranger. He contributes a beautiful, sweeping pastoral version of “Betsy Baker” that adds a blush of romance to the album. But Flood really brings the weirder elements of Bellowhead out, and his arrangements are highly theatrical. For instance, “Black Beetle Pies” features clunking xylophone and ups the grand guignol: the song is about a woman feeding the poor on, you guessed it, black beetle pies, and her neighbor on a pie stuffed with her underpants. “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” a supernatural tale, is rooted by a chopping cello line while the band chants out the story of three dead sons. “What’s The Life of Man (Any More Than A Leaf)?” is a cabaret treatment of mortality. These three songs seem to make the case that Pete Flood has been liberally listening to Bertolt Brecht, and perhaps on Broadside that is precisely what Bellowhead are going for: their own folk-based Threepenny Opera.

So this is all terrific, and a huge, confident step forwards for the entire band and for exposing folk music to a wider audience. Moreover, the title Broadside is a stroke of genius: not only referring to the early printed sheets of folk tunes, but also, of course, to a carronade. Bellowhead get full marks for the artistic package of the album, which features the band in British naval outfits circa the Napoleonic wars – it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Pogues’ classic regalia on Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Dashing, daring, and one of the best albums of the year. – Lee Blackstone

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