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  • Adrian's Album Reviews |

    Bellowhead

    Burlesque 9 ( 2006 ) more best albums...
    Rigs Of The Time Jordan / Across The Line / London Town / Sloe Gin / Courting Too Slow / Flash Company / Hopkinson's Favourite / One May Morning Early / Outlandish Knight / Frog's Legs And Dragon's Teeth / Fire Marengo

    The saviours of British folk music! I haven’t been this excited by a new folk album since Eliza Carthy produced ‘Red’ and I’ve been searching ever since for something. Somebody to showcase the sheer joy that English folk music can be, in a modern setting. Seth Lakeman has come close although rather than breaking down barriers, he merely writes excellent modern and contemporary folk music - Bellowhead are rather different. There’s a core group of singers in the rich and varied folk tradition. There’s the usual array of folk instrumentation. There’s a brass band……. er, hang on. A brass band? Well, most of one at least. Fully integrated into the Bellowhead ensemble are a group of musicians playing a range of brass instruments. So, we get a morris-dance jig complete with clashing of bells of the relevant garb and a parping trumpet adding another dimension. We get ‘London Town’, a traditional sounding piece transformed by the sheer joy of the band performing it. The brass sounds come across as strangely modern yet ancient at the same time. A very fresh, exciting sound that’s had gig-goers amazed and actually enjoying folk music. I hope Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy etc are aware of this excellent new group.

    As if to complete an almost impossibly good start to the album, ‘Courting Too Slow’ moves the aptly named ‘Burlesque’ into calmer waters, the party moves into reflective mode. Mournful trumpet sounds accompany the singer, two/three other voices then accompany the singer. It’s believable. Oh, back to ‘London Town’. Whilst everything is going on in this positive jamboree of a tune, I’m reminded briefly of The Divine Comedy. Not a folk-band at all, rather a indie-pop group. Just a brief flutter of a similarity in one particular section. It’s enough for me to be able to say Bellowhead do indeed have the ability to transcend genres, whether limited or otherwise. ‘Rigs Of Our Time’ and another song or two appear to suddenly aquire Frank Zappa percussion! A great instrumental ‘Frogs Legs And Dragon Teeth’ is worthy all on its own. ‘Jordon’ will have you singing along and the only critiscm I have is that there are almost too many riches on display. You’ll have to put it down at some point two-thirds of the way through because your teeth will fall out through all the shaking and stomping you’ve been doing. You know, sit down and have a cup of strong black coffee and start all over again. Up to the rigs, down to the jigs….. of LONDON TOWN. Stupendous stuff and one of the most exciting debuts I’ve ever heard. If I gave out awards, this one would receive the innovation award. Can anybody draw? I need some awards!

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    Readers Comments

    Philthy Phil philthyphil@ntlworld.com
    I bought this album a week or so back and I CAN'T stop playing it! This is simply the best new band I have heard for a very, very long time. I agree with everything you said Adrian - my only qualm is that the only thing you could find against it is that it is TOO good - and for that, seemingly, you docked a point! I particularly like the mixture of styles on display here. They are a folk band, right? (Albeit one with 3/4 of a brass band as a horn section.) So what are they doing playing dub reggae better than most dub reggae bands in "Hopkinson's favourite"? And the fiddle at the start of "The Outlandish Knight" could have been lifted straight out of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade" (my favourite track on the album btw.) This is a band composed of consumate musicians, possessed of an absolute delight in the music they are playing, and the arrangements are superbly (er... arranged!) to bring this delight to the fore in every song. The shifts in mood; from! exuberance to melancholy; from frivolity to seriousness; from danceability to... Oh, come on - it's ALL danceable! - are seemless, both between and within the songs. I absolutely MUST see this band performing live as soon as is humanly possible. 10/10.


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    Matachin 9 ( 2008 )
    Fakenham Fair / Roll Her Down The Bay / Vignette 1 / I Drew My Ship Across The Harbour / Kafoozalum - The Priest's Miss / Cholera Camp / Vignette 2 / Whiskey Is The Life Of Man / Spectre Review / Widow's Curse / Bruton Town / Trip To Bucharest - The Flight Of The Folk Mutants Parts 1+2 / Vignette 3

    The official Bellowhead website bellowhead.co.uk is subtitled 'English World Music'. This eleven-piece ensemble have been picking up fans everywhere they've been these past three years and you know what? Unlikely as it may seem, I really hope they break into the album charts. John Spiers ( melodeon & concertina ) and Jon Boden ( lead singer & fiddle ) deserve sales as well as acclaim for what they've done here with Bellowhead. Certain writers are even comparing the impact of Bellowhead to that of Fairport and Pentangle, quite some comparison. When I first picked up 'Matachin' I wanted to see if there was a giddy party jig, aka 'London Town' from 'Burlesque'. Spotting a song titled 'Whiskey Is The Life Of Man', I skipped forwards and listened. Carefully noting from the informative liner notes that the song is a shanty that was sung in England and North America and made popular by of all things a bearded Yorkshireman. Anyway, the first two seconds of the track are enough to convince anyone worried Bellowhead couldn't match the quality of 'Burlesque'. It also helps of course that the song is about Whiskey and has a drunken, marching feel.

    Bellowhead have dug 'Fakenham Fair' out from somewhere and given it an sweet arrangement that brings out some beautiful melodies. If any Bellowhead tune so far could provide them with a crossover pop hit, this could be the one. Big words of praise by the way for the female vocals in the mix, they really do send chills through me when the harmonies come in. So, we've got two excellent songs in 'Fakenham Fair' and 'Whiskey Is The Life Of Man'? Well, we've got a third in 'Roll Her Down The Bay', a stupendously well-arranged piece of folk music. Parping trumpets and deep bass notes evoke love and life - and hats off to band member Pete Flood for arranging this tune! Cholera Camp' witnesses a Kipling poem married to unsettling music that revels in both tragedy and high comedy. 'Trip To Bucharest' is an original composition by band member Rachael McShane and yet another superbly arranged piece. The sound this 11 piece band make and the imagination they put into their music builds 'Matachin' into a series of movies. Only a couple of tunes towards the end of the album seem to suggest Bellowhead running out of steam, but only suggest. 'Bruton Town' for instance is very good with some nice cool jazzy melody lines. Jazz folk? Whatever next!

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    Readers Comments

    Joshua Kent
    I first heard Bellowhead when flicking through radio stations they were playing on the radio 2 folk awards. The sound that encircled my head for the next week was a full on exiting tuneful jazzed up english folk. I then got my dad to order the burlesque CD. After listening to this and learning the words off by heart (which I must say didn't take long seeing as this CD was so catchy) I bought the Matachin album which I am enjoying very much. People think I'm abit strange listening to folk at the age of 13, so I tell them that if they bothered to listen to them they would relise that the music I listen to is just as good as theirs.


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    Hedonism 8 ( 2010 )
    New York Girls / A-Begging I Will Go / Cross-Eyed And Chinless / Broomfield Hill / The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid / Captain Wedderburn / Amsterdam / Cold Blows The Wind / Parson's Farewell / Little Sally Racket / Yarmouth Town

    Bellowhead hire legendary producer John Leckie to translate their mighty live sound to the studio. Me, I really liked their last album and the risk of being honed and proficient is that you end up losing some of the charm that initially attracted people to you. One step forward, two steps back? I wanted Bellowhead to make the breakthrough here. As it now seems they haven't, at least commercially, we'll have to sastify ourselves by Bellowhead just being really good. Is that alright? Yeah, it'll do. 'New York Girls' rises out of the speakers as a typical Bellowhead dancer stomper and even mentions the word polka. The fiddle see-saws away providing a wonderfully catchy main melodic refrain before the drums and the brass and everything else enter in, smiling is a distinct possibility! Proficiency isn't a bad thing of course, as demonstrated by 'A Begging I Will Go', the sort of song title designed to have non-folk lovers running in the other direction and not stopping until they stumble across Motorhead or Lady Gaga. Interesting pairing they'd make. Anyway, Bellowhead doing folk results in 'A Begging I Will Go' sounding like a Seventies cop-show, no bad thing. 'Broomfield Road' is more to satisfy the folk purists, at least in arrangement, although Bellowhead don't just rely on voice and fiddle of course. The drums do their usual Bellowhead marching band thing, the backing vocals attach themselves to the singing to ensure to chorus hits home and yes, we do get a wonderful middle eight where everything falls out to leave just a fiddle and a parping brass instrument as Jon Boden sings softly before of course we get a joyous finish. Joyous is the main word you will always think of when listening to Bellowhead.

    The second half of the album is where we find significant failings this time around for Bellowhead. Covering 'Amsterdam' is a brave choice and yes, it's fits Bellowhead but it's too well known a song to be a surprise and they don't really do anything surprising with it. 'Captain Wedderburn' seems designed to bring some change of tempo to the album but whereas before Bellowhead could do a melancholy and/or sweet, this time it seems forcibly inserted to bring some variety to the equation. 'Cold Blows The Wind' has its moments, 'Parson's Farewell' would fit a Spires/Boden album better than a Bellowhead album, 'Little Sally Racket' is folk/punk/brass band, quite a combination - fun if throwaway and the closing 'Yarmouth Town'? It's 'London Town' from their debut album with different words! Now, I love Bellowhead and John Leckie is one of the greatest British record producers that ever lived. I think I know what the band tried to do with this album but tight arrangements and impressive playing are one thing, just don't let yourselves ignore the fact people also just like listening to well crafted albums with good original songwriting and inventive arrangements - without having to stand in a field.

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    Broadside 7 ( 2012 )
    Byker Hill / Old Dun Cow / Roll The Woodpile Down / 10,000 Miles Away / Betsy Baker / Black Beetle Pies / Thousands Or More / Dockside Rant-Sailing On The Tide / The Wife Of Usher's Well / What's The Life Of A Man (Any More Than A Leaf?) / Lillibulero / Go My Way

    I must be alone in the universe in not liking former Stone Roses and Radiohead producer John Leckie's work for Bellowhead. Whilst the music press praise the group's increasing fanbase and increasingly live sounding arrangements, something seems to have been lost along the wayside. Bellowhead for me never were just about reinventing 200 year old folk songs in a variety of styles. They weren't just a singer and 11 backing musicians, including their now rightly famous brass section. They were a group with self-penned compositions and a variety of important and self-creative core group members providing their own songs and arrangements, lending the group overall a vital diversity of voice and tone. Lyrically, well Talking Heads once released an album called 'More Songs About Buildings And Food'. You could title 'Broadside' can be titled 'Fewer Songs About Drink And Prostitues' and it would be fairly accurate. Hey, I miss the songs about drink and prostitues! Well 'Old Dun Cow' does mention booze, girls and fire and also sports a stunning and inventive arrangement. When the song goes all funk-movie-cop-tv on us with a chanted fire and wandering trumpet solo, you can't help but smile.

    'Old Dun Cow' follows on from the Bellowhead by numbers 'Byker Hill', a song rescued only by a terribly good arrangement and a generally impressive overall sound. The next notable moment arrives with the instrumental 'The Dockside Rant/Sailing With The Tide', a nod towards Bellowhead's roots, a well constructed instrumental without gimicks or shiny arranging tricks that tend to mask depth and substance. What am I talking about? Well, the album has a very cohesive sound overall, the low points are seemingly gleamed and polished in an effort to make them less low, but such an approach also removes the element of surprise from a majority of the performances. The final two songs do impress and bookending the album with the four strongest songs is a good move. 'Lillibulero' then is a stomping, energetic joy complete with wonderfull massed backing vocals and 'Go My Way' sounds intimate in a way much of 'Broadside' doesn't.

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    this page last updated 24/04/13


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