The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

Bel­low­head Nav­i­ga­tor/Planet


THE English folk canon has been cat­a­pulted into the 21st cen­tury on the back of a bo­da­cious be­he­moth. With a blend of bravura play­ing and bravado ar­rang­ing, a score of dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments and a range of styling, Bel­low­head has blown away cob­webs and all ves­tiges of chunky swea­ter­dom to reawaken a slum­ber­ing gi­ant of a genre. As such, the 11-piece is to Bri­tish tra­di­tional folk what Ra­dio­head is to prog rock. The head-to-head com­par­i­son is fur­thered by the fact both out­fits orig­i­nated in Ox­ford­shire and have ben­e­fited from the men­tor­ship of John Leckie. The veteran pro­ducer put Ra­dio­head on the road to great­ness with 1995’s The Bends. Leckie’s left-field di­rec­tion helped make Bel­low­head’s 2010 al­bum He­do­nism the high­est sell­ing in­de­pen­dently re­leased folk al­bum in Bri­tain. The fol­low-up even spent time in Bri­tain’s main­stream top 20 al­bum chart. Broad­side ex­pands the bound­aries of tra­di­tional folk with a broader can­vas and pal­ette of colour. It’s also a harder-edged al­bum, with an­ar­chi­cal un­der­pin­ning. Here and there, Bel­low­head’s grandios­ity nudges pom­pos­ity. Brit­pop, avant­garde clas­si­cal and psy­che­delic rock el­e­ments min­gle, and mu­sic hall and cabaret in­flu­ences merge to take folk mu­sic to places where it has never been be­fore. Roller-coaster ar­range­ments make it a white-knuckle ride. Shed­ding mono­tone vo­cal ten­den­cies for a new the­atri­cal­ity, front­man Jon Bo­den leads the band into some dark cor­ners. In the Dick­en­sian Black Bee­tle Pies, for ex­am­ple, the singer tells the story of an un­savoury work­house dish served up by an un­hinged governess with a sense of mal­ice. The back­drop pro­vided by the band chan­nels Ber­tolt Brecht and Kurt Weill; the coda brings to mind Ge­orge Martin’s pro­duc­tion work for the Bea­tles. Dis­tant echoes of Eleanor Rigby and

Penny Lane re­ver­ber­ate in Betsy Baker, an al­to­gether more gen­teel 19th-cen­tury bal­lad. But later, in The Wife of Usher’s Well, Bo­den re­lates a ghost story as grue­some as any­thing served up by folk-rock­ers Fair­port Con­ven­tion and Steel­eye Span, and with a sense of in­ven­tion and elec­tric gui­tar dis­tor­tion that Ra­dio­head would be proud to claim. A cosy hoo­te­nanny Bel­low­head’s fourth al­bum clearly is not. Even Henry Pur­cell’s jaunty march

Lil­libulero con­tains a macabre yarn con­cern­ing the devil and a farmer’s wife and a screech­ing string-sec­tion bridge. What’s the Life of Man? is an­other mor­bid lit­tle song, to cite the band’s own words. The clos­est Broad­side comes to folk orthodoxy is with a brass-driven ren­di­tion of the well-known trans­porta­tion bal­lad

10,000 Miles Away, the drink­ing song Thou­sands or More and the sea shanties Go My Way

and Roll the Wood­pile Down, which are all de­liv­ered with great gusto (the last-named with retro rock feel). Folk club sta­ples Byker Hill and The Old Dun Cow re­ceive more rad­i­cal and fre­netic treat­ment, the former pro­pelled by a pound­ing rock beat and punc­tu­ated by or­ches­tral stabs, the lat­ter equipped with an ap­pro­pri­ately boozy and bluesy outro.

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