Review: Bellowhead – Broadside

 

With each new release, Bellowhead seem less like a band and more like a force of nature. Their music is full of tongue-in-cheek humour, colourful depictions of British life and a musical power that really is unmatched in contemporary folk (or any other genre for that matter). And having received an amazing seven BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for their live shows and group achievements, they show no signs of slowing down. Their new album Broadside leaves me wondering how, four albums in, they still manage to create such wild, original, traditional music, which leaves hardened folk fans fulfilled and everyone else firmly in the party spirit. So with numerous awards, a god-like status in modern folk and rleven talented, creative musicians to draw influence from, there newest release is not without its expectations.

My main worry with each new Bellowhead album is whether they will be able to capture their famous live energy on record. I was proved wrong once again as, though they are certainly a band to experience live, Broadside is full of as much force as you could want and a great triumph for their producer John Leckie, who also produced their last success, Hedonism. The album kicks off with a reworking of the traditional coal mining song Byker Hill, which has a chorus so fit for the Bellowhead chorale that before the album has properly begun, you will be whipped up in their whirlwind of bold voices and instruments. The traditional renditions, which are littered throughout the album, continue in the form of Old Dun Cow, which tells the story of drunkards inside a burning pub, and Roll The Woodpile Down, an incredibly joyous and harmonious sea-shanty. The rearrangements of these classics seem wonderfully pure, as if each tale has been personally lived by the band, and the seamless fusions of jazz, folk and classical instrumentation, laced with the organic vocals of Jon Boden and his many backing singers, confirm Bellowhead as masters of their field.

The real success of the 11-piece comes from their ability to take these tales, like the heartbreaking love story Betsy Baker, in which Boden sings ‘I never knew what it was to sigh, till I saw Betsy Baker’ to a tune of such graceful optimism that I was equally enchanted by the story and the music. In true Bellowhead tradition however, the album does contain its fair share of dark numbers, where the true versatility of vocal talent and instrumentation is brought forward to spin dark, and at times sincerely creepy, tales. Black Beetle Pies, a spine-tingling, Sweeney Todd-esque story, is a song which, despite being so conspicuous in weirdness, sits comfortably within the context of Broadside; the band’s theatrical and gruesome chant of the title is something that no other folk group could easily get away with. The creepiness persists as The Wife Of Usher’s Well swells with mystery as drums pound and crash over a deep chant about three sons who become lost at sea.

However, this darkness is just a brief interlude before the party starts again with What’s The Life Of A Man, which, despite its slightly gloomy subject of mortality, has an enjoyable Russian circus quality to it, and the party just keeps going on into an explosion of pure folk joy in the form of Lillibulerro. The album’s closer Go My Way is a perfect end and a perfect example of what Bellowhead do best; it is full of beautiful harmonies, perfectly emotive instrumental arrangements and heart-warming lyrics that is sure to charm anyone to fandom. This is an album that is better than Hedonism, which is no mean feat, and Broadside‘s catalogue of gripping and affecting stories is sure to keep the crowds, and awards, coming.

Josh King