Seth Lakeman has always been an artist who has teetered on the edge of great public acclaim, but he is undoubtedly one of the biggest names around in modern British folk, boasting a Mercury Prize nomination for his second album Kitty Jay, support tours with Billy Bragg and Jools Holland and, after the new release Tales From the Barrel House, six solo albums to his name. The Devonshire, multi-instrumentalist has truly gone his own way with his new album by not only releasing it on his only label, but playing all the instruments himself, truly creating a solo album and creating one that is full of all the raw energy and pure traditional intensity that he is best known for.
Lakeman has really drawn from his home roots on this album, recording in a disused barrel house at the Morwhellam Quay mining port, from which the album takes its name. As expected the album is filled with his characteristic cutting violin melodies and the clang of banjos, as well as the pounding percussion, which is partly made up of the banging of chains, axes and other abandoned tools and old bits of metal found in the makeshift studio. It is effects like this which give his music that unmatched bestial force and full dramatic sound that can come only with his sincere passion.
Having made his last three albums whilst signed to major record labels, Lakeman has truly made the most of going it alone, making an album closer to Punch Bowl and Kitty Jay than his more recent efforts. Tales From the Barrel House is a sort of Devon concept album, and each song can be found to have some reference to a traditional trade from the seaside towns. Album opener More Than Money refers to the old tin miners and, to fully gain the feel and tone of the song, Lakeman went into a copper mine to record it, leaving no question of his personal connection to these songs. Each song seems to lose itself in its own concept, as if Lakeman has lived through the toils and ages alongside the workers he sings of; a metronome ticks us into third track The Watchmaker’s Rhyme, where we hear the tale of a lone watchmaker, Lakeman sings: ‘he wound up every face/ Precision is his prime’ praising the workers of a dying age. The fisherman’s ballad Salt From Our Veins combines a haunting violin tune, the echo of a banjo around the barrel house and Lakeman’s own reverberating vocals to create a song full of heartfelt empathy for the committed fishermen.
The true merits of this album ring out during the powerful, full moments of Lakeman’s multi-instrumental talents, such as that in Brother of Penryn. No instrument is wasted and at no point does it ever seem too much; Lakeman is a true master of atmosphere and creating music that makes your stomach quiver, layering instrument over instrument and putting everything he has into each section. It is these moments, just as apparent in Hard Road and Higher Walls, which will make you pray you will get to see him live. Saying this, however, he offers some genuinely beautiful slower moments in the love stories of The Sender, which has a rolling violin melody enough to render a crowd silent and lyrics that show Lakeman’s relentless progression and fearless traditional romance, and Apples of His Eyes, led along by the soft plucking of a violin, which pays homage to the cider-makers and acts as the sunshine through the clouds in this powerul thunderstorm of an album.
As the producer, mixer and only musician, Seth Lakeman has gone all out to make an album that is truly his own, and to make an album that geographically and emotionally means a lot to him. He is a folk artist that is hard to beat musically and lyrically, and to make an album that is both so personally relevant and emotionally accessible to old and new fans is a great credit to him. It seems as though the echoes from the barrel house will be ringing out for a long time to come.