Monday, 19 September 2016

Album Review: Seth Lakeman 'Ballads of the Broken Few'

The first notes of Willow Tree resound strikingly familiar to the eerie bowed introduction to Seth Lakeman’s previous album, Word of Mouth (2014), but the sudden vocal harmony from special guests Wildwood Kin sets this offering apart in a promise for something raw and different. In Lakeman’s usual style of recording in unusual settings, Ballads of the Broken Few was recorded entirely in a Jacobean Manor House, and the acoustics of the recording space shine through from the offset in the editing. The album’s opener may be a traditional broadside, but with all the reworking that it has been through Lakeman’s touch is clearly there: from the minimalistic percussion to the dynamics range in his vocals, and existing fans of his music will appreciate that before the short introduction abruptly stops and the rest of the album gets underway.

A slower offering presents itself in Silence Reigns, and I cannot help but be reminded of songs from the artist’s previous work. Seth Lakeman has been criticised in the past for his musical style remaining very similar from album to album, and admittedly I do begin to see what his critics mean, which is why the harmonies from Wildwood Kin again help make this album sound different as the song progresses. It is a pleasant an inoffensive song, but not one that particularly stands out as an immediate favourite. Meet Me In The Twilight, on the other hand, picks up the mood well as the first time Lakeman’s fretted string playing can be heard, along with an enjoyably resonating backdrop from the percussion and double bass. I find myself starting to regret my earlier questioning of Lakeman’s stylistic progression; as the third track reaches its final verse it makes me begin to expect one of his beloved hard-hitting, faster, and punchier songs to follow.

Unfortunately, this does not happen, and Stranger seems to make us retrace our steps back two tracks previous in its slow mournful bowed playing. The traditional ballad of lost love is another nice listen, with an expert fusion between Lakeman’s slower pieces and traditional elements, but I do wonder if it was misplaced on the album with several of the songs now having sounded rather similar. Fading Sound, thankfully, catches my attention from the beginning, and quickly becomes a favourite due to the contrast with what we have just heard. The track only gets better as Lakeman’s lyrics trailingly echo “she’s a fading sound”, and the percussion kicks off with the female backing vocals. The title track then changes the dynamic slightly, with Lakeman’s signature bursts of short and sharp fiddle strokes fading into slight distortion and a chorus that seems to have been written for singing along to, and I cannot help but head bang lightly at this clearly more rock influenced piece that begins to act as a call to arms as Lakeman asks that “everybody come together.”

Innocent Child follows in these footsteps as another track on the album that sticks out; it is melancholic and loud, packing a punch of fantastic playing and intriguing polyphonic vocals. Lakeman may have abandoned his fast and jumpy writing style for this album, but evidently that does not mean that he has lost that fantastic flair that turned us all on to him in the first place; I can see track eight immediately becoming a live favourite before the slower playing of Whenever I’m Home comes in, reminiscent of Portrait of My Wife from Lakeman’s previous visit to the Cecil Sharp House archives. It is another pleasant ballad, with beautiful playing and powerful lyrics, but I cannot help but notice that we have heard three very similar songs so far on the same album, and it is slightly worrying that the more memorable songs are all the ones that do not sound like these. I remember Silver Threads well from the last time I saw Lakeman live, during which tour he premiered this song live. It rings out no less than it did at the time, and his unique style of plucked violin helps set it aside from the rest.

Of the traditional songs arranged for the album, Pulling Hard Against the Stream is my favourite. It gives us Lakeman’s own flair in the arrangement and his playing, whilst at the same time retaining the feel of its original proprietors in the pub singaround setting. It is a perfect example of Lakeman’s ability to weave modern music into traditional songs, making them particularly relevant to modern Britain politically as the lyrics advise us all to stick together against the oncoming destruction of the stream, and it works ever so well before Bury Me Deep calmly closes the album with a unique acapella sound. It is the first time, to my memory, that Lakeman has gone acapella for a song (as a solo performer; excluding other projects), and that intrigues me.

As an album, Ballads of the Broken Few is clearly a Seth Lakeman work through and through. It maintains his usual sound, whilst taking us to a few places we have not visited before. Elements from his previous works are there, and several of the songs bear a striking resemblance to 2012’s Tales from the Barrel House in their tone, whilst echoing nicely in their Jacobean setting. However, my problem is that many of the songs just sound so similar; whilst I appreciate the slow and mournful ballads it seems that every other track on the album resorts to that. Of course, that means that the tracks that do diverge stand out a lot more, but after my first listen I find myself really missing the short sharp bursts of fiddle played at frightening speed that made up hits like Kitty Jay and Race To Be King. Lakeman’s newest work is definitely a good album, and in my opinion Word of Mouth was a masterpiece that was always going to be hard to follow, but I do not think this one is his best. Whilst there are songs that I cannot wait to hear live on Lakeman’s upcoming tour (check his website out for the dates), I find myself looking forward to hearing old classics again just as much. However, that being said, Lakeman’s continuing work to fuse the traditional and the modern to remind us of the importance and relevance of our roots is very important, and as I have previously said this album exemplifies that brilliantly; whether it be a traditional arrangement or one of Lakeman’s own.

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