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While Mumford and Sons are garnering all the folk-revival kudos and being the trendy name to drop at the moment, there is a band that have been lurking in the darker corner of the barn-dance hall that are much more interesting. The oddly named Bellowhead (which conjures up mental images of some kind of demented whale) have been around since 2004, and are led by folky maestros John Spiers and Jon Boden. On their latest release from 2010, Hedonism, their jaunty, drunken ceilidh style is jumbled up with numerous different genres.
Opener 'New York Girls' skips along with an irrepressible energy, adding to the whole romanticised New York dream that is woven into popular music mythos by Tom Waits, the Pogues et al. It's a vibrant start to the record that is bound to get any barn rocking with the sound of fleet-footed revellers whirling to the heady fiddle lines. Shot full of energetic fun, it gives one the overwhelming urge to sink several pints of cider, grab the nearest lass and twirl her round the dancefloor til she either gives you a slap or falls head over heels in love with you. This is music that shrieks of having a good time.
But the group don't rest on their laurels, and the album is a thronging mass of different textures and flavours. 'A-Begging I Will Go' is folky ska, the band chucking in angular rhythms and rousing choruses in between funk guitar parts that sound like their lifted straight from the soundtrack of a Starsky and Hutch episode. 'Captain Wedderburn' is a slow-burner, with blues in its background and some haunting female vocal parts, and 'Broomfield Hill' is a bit of pure folk whimsy. 'Amsterdam' has shades of both Vivaldi style slow baroque and Renaissance dirge, all as a backdrop to a mournful poem celebrating the thrill and squalor of the famed city, but it quickly picks its feet up as it blossoms into a tale of success.
This album contains a bizarre cocktail of musical ingredients, and invites the listener to revel in its madness. 'Little Sally Racket' mixes haunting ska lines a la Specials, snotty Oi punk and torrid-sounding Cuban jazz of Dizzy Gillespie with sea shanties and weird Captain Beefheart skronk, but without losing their own identity, all in under four minutes. This is a refreshingly brief album as well, and does exactly what it says on the tin and straight to the point. Hedonism? This lot would provide the perfect soundtrack to the Hellfire Club having a knees up below decks on Blackbeard's galleon. One other online reviewer described this lot as 'not so much a folk band, but circus music gone mad'. I think they're pretty much spot on. Celtic rhythms, Slavic flavoured folk, sweaty jazz, funk, punk energy, soulful vocals, even hints of Jewish klezmer music... they've thrown all sorts into the mix here, but not with random sloppiness. The performances are tight, the compositions punchy, and one gets the immediate impression they're not just throwing it all in to see what will stick. The flavours are carefully picked and distilled into a focused form, rather than showing off their wide repertoire for the sake of it.
One of the most vibrant, mad, and joyous albums I've heard in a long time - perfect for a raucous night at a barn dance or a piratical party, and bound to blow away any glum cobwebs. It can be downloaded for 7.49 on Amazon, or on CD for not much more.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 New York Girls
2 A-Begging I will Go
3 Cross-Eyed And Chinless
4 Broomfield Hill
5 The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid
6 Captain Wedderburn
8 Cold Blows The Wind
9 Parson's Farewell
10 Little Sally Racket
11 Yarmouth Town