Harp & A Monkey War Stories
Moonraker ( www.harpandamonkey.com )
Review by Lee Blackstone
Boasting a name that makes the band sound like a hipster Brooklyn bar serving bespoke cocktails, Harp & A Monkey are, in actuality, a trio of friends from Lancashire, England. Harp & A Monkey trade in a kind of idiosyncratic, independent folk music long on vignettes from real-life, which are then refracted through the group's readily identifiable sound. Simon Jones plays guitar, viola, and harp; Andy Smith offers banjo, guitar, melodica, and electronic programming; while Martin Purdy sings and plays accordion, keyboards, and glockenspiel. Yes, the glockenspiel is frequently used, and an integral part of Harp & A Monkey's albums: a risk that could make the group sound twee, or ironically self-aware, but which actually lends the trio a real sense of magic.
War Stories focuses Harp & A Monkey's storytelling powers on the First World War. The project for this album was supported by the Arts Council, and the Western Front Association, with the aim of the group shedding light on the WWI experience in their own style. And, the supporting organizations could not have honored a better band to do so: Martin Purdy is a World War I scholar, and he has written two books on the subject. As a result, Purdy, Jones, and Smith have risen to the challenge and created a thematically rich album that is profoundly moving.
"Banks of Green Willow"
Opener “Banks of Green Willow” rings out with a glockenspiel-led intro that, for a moment, had me convinced that the Colorblind James Experience had been resurrected in Lancashire. The song is an original, laced with banjo, and it features very light and appropriate electronic enhancement. In fact, one could mistake “Banks” as being based on a traditional tune. The song talks about the soldiers of the First World War as being 'forgotten men,' a point driven home by another distinguishing feature of War Stories: the inclusion of voices either from, or commenting on, the period. Here, Sir John Hammerton's voice is added from a 1930s documentary, intoning that “to be struck down, and swallowed into earth, is a common fate.”
The interaction between the modern and the older samples throughout War Stories is tasteful, and quite affecting. We hear family members describing their reaction at hearing of the conscription, or the death, of a loved one. During the rollicking “Raise A Glass to Danny,” with its join-in chorus, we hear the story of Daniel Laidlaw, a piper with a highland regiment at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Laidlaw walked out onto the battlefield to play his pipes during the hot action – and, at the end of the song, we hear Laidlaw being asked (the scratches on the vinyl are audible) to play “the tune with which you piped the boys over the top” – and Daniel Laidlaw simply says, “Yes, sir.” The pipes skirl. It's a brilliant moment, and the feeling that the years have been pulled back sharply is overwhelming.
"A Young Trooper Cut Down"
Traditional tunes and popular melodies work their way through War Stories: “Charlie Chaplin,” “The Long, Long Trail,” “Flanders' Shore,” and “The Long, Long Trail” all provide a foundation for Harp & A Monkey to experiment. “Flanders' Shore,” for instance, updates the traditional “Flandyke Shore,” which likely dates back to the seventeenth century. Special mention must be reserved for two magnificent songs – Harp & A Monkey's take on “A Young Trooper Cut Down,” and “Soldier Soldier.” Despite its jaunty tune, “Young Trooper” paints a rather vivid, sorrowful scene, with “a young soldier all wrapped up in linen, as cold as the clay,” and the sergeant sitting “with his hands on his head” as the last rites are administered. “Soldier Soldier” is positively hypnotic, the pace kept by the strumming of Smith's banjo. The song is also aided by an unforgettable chorus: “New love, true love/Best go up for a new love/The dead they cannot rise, so you better dry your eyes/You best go up for a new love.”
War Stories is an extraordinary album, one filled with not only with musical innovation, but also with the gamut of human emotion. The research and care with which this project has been executed is undeniable, and the album proves to be a unique and unmissable sonic monument to the First World War. – Lee Blackstone