Hack-Poets Guild Blackletter Garland
One Little Independent
Reviewed by Chris Nickson
It’s a very rare thing, but once in a long, long while an album comes along to get the blood pumping, stir the imagination and upend everyone’s expectations. Hack-Poets Guild is a collaboration between three very experienced musicians – Lisa Knapp, Marry Waterson (who also does some of the videos) and Nathaniel Mann – and they’ve created something…unique. Given access to the vast collection of old broadside ballads in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, they emerged to create a record that sometimes adapts the originals, sometimes takes them as a springboard for something new, and sometimes uses the words directly, but frames everything in an utterly original musical context.
Broadsides are often considered as folk music. Really, though, they were the pop music for their times. Song sheets with the words (and sometimes the tune), sold on the streets for a penny. They were the singles of their day, hack work about anything and everything, and meant to be disposable. Over time, many have become the basis for pieces in the folk music canon – which means it makes sense to have folk performers play with them.
Except what Hack-Poets Guild come up with is gleeful subversion. They turn everything inside out and upside down and bring an entirely fresh perspective. There is now single sound. Each track is very different, guaranteed to make you rethink your ideas of folk music. Take “Daring Highwayman,’ for instance. The words are pulled straight from the old broadside, a tale of a man gone bad and now waiting for the gallows. But Lisa Knapp delivers it in her best London swagger, a kind of song speech that arrives in an utterly natural flurry of winks and charm as it gallops along over a rattling percussive base. It’s irresistible, and yes, this is folk music.
Ten Tongues” has a dark Gothic slither, its images filled with death and decay, adapted from an 18th century story. It’s shadowy and disturbing, but Marry Waterson’s voice carries with cool authority, a piece that might have been at home on the first Portishead album (much as Something To Love Me” mixes broadsides and 90s trip-hop to stunning effect).
"Meat For Worms" (excerpt)
Blackletter Garland brings a cornucopia of surprises, but probably none more than the doom-laden “Meat For Worms.” The words date from the 16th century. The exaggerated, auto-tuned vocal harmonies bring an utterly 21st century, machine perspective. It’s deliberately jarring, but it focuses your attention.
"Rare Receipts" (excerpt)
Not that everything is so extreme. “Rare Receipts” is a straight, beautiful performance to a glorious melody, while the stripped-down “The Troubles Of The World” revels in its candour and awkward delivery. Elsewhere, a couple of pieces (“Birds Of Harmony” and a tremulous version of the traditional “Cruel Mother”) are so delicate that it feels as if simply breathing could make them crumble.
It’s adventurous and wildly daring in the ways most albums are not. All credit to the musicians themselves (Mann brings a superbly muscled voice to “Hemp & Flax,” where the beat comes from a hemp beating brake and mallet), who use invention and imagination to bring the past thrillingly to life. But producer and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver deserves kudos, too.
There are plenty of earworms in here – at least three you won’t shake off easily – but that makes perfect sense when you’re reinventing the pop music of earlier times. Folk? Pop? Who cares? When it’s this good it can stand by itself.