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As I've got older I've found myself more appreciative of folk music. I am drawn to the stories told by the music and I enjoy being transported into other worlds and past times. However, folk often seems to get a bad press and is associated with beardy, real ale stereotypes. Devon-born singer/songwriter, Seth Lakeman, isn't remotely beardy and breathes exciting new life into the folk genre. He has been criticised by die-hard folk fans for selling out and becoming too mainstream, but in my opinion his style works. Poor Man's Heaven, his fourth album, released in 2008, combines traditional folk with rock and the result is a vibrant, earthy, atmospheric collection of songs.
This album is inspired by the Cornish coastline and the myths and legends of the region. The songs tell stories of shipwrecks, romance, passion, heroism and betrayal. Many will have you tapping your feet and clapping your hands, some will send shivers down your spine and others will break your heart. I love Cornwall and if I am lucky enough to take a trip there in the summer, this will be an excellent CD to play in the car.
Let me explain what the highlights were for me and why. The Hurlers is a striking opening track, beginning with a burst of pounding drums before the vocals, guitar and characteristically fast & furious fiddle kicks in. The piece pulsates with energy and drama, the lyrics recounting an old Cornish legend about young men who were turned to stone for playing the game of hurling on Sunday instead of attending church. I love how the music reflects the tension of the story as it builds to its chilling conclusion.
However, I suspect some might find this track a bit too loud and stompy. It certainly isn't one I would want to listen to if I was a little under par or hung over, as I would probably end up feeling as if a troop of ourang-outangs had been having a barn dance inside my head. You need to be feeling pretty upbeat to appreciate this rather frantic number. It just isn't the same if you turn down the volume. But when you're in the right mood it is invigorating and very exciting, great when I'm doing some housework and need to put a bit more oomph into it.
I have always had a bit of a fascination for stories of pirates and shipwrecks so I was drawn to those songs on the album which reflect that theme. Feather in a Storm tells the tale of ships being lured onto rocks and plundered for their cargo. Although the lyrics are typical of a folk song, the music is more rock than folk, with a catchy slide guitar riff giving it a rather hypnotic quality and creating a dark, edgy mood. This makes me think of the wildness of the sea and the dangerous but intriguing world of pirates.
Despite my newfound enthusiasm for folk music, I am still a rock lover at heart, so for me an album blending the two genres was a definite treat. Cherry Red Girl combines Celtic and rock influences particularly well. I love the contrast between Seth's lusty lead vocals and the ethereal sound of the female backing vocalist. This song tells the story of an innocent young girl's seduction and it has a brooding but sexy quality.
I'll Haunt You is one of the most catchy tracks on the album, in my view. It is about a sailor who is away at sea and casts a spell on the lover who spurned him. Intricate acoustic guitar and Lakeman's almost aggressive vocals give this a 'haunting' quality indeed, conveying pain, passion and despair, which is apt for the subject-matter.
It isn't all about fast, frantic, foot-tapping numbers or throbbing rock, however. With Crimson Dawn, the mood changes and we have a lovely, romantic song about a woman rescued from a shipwreck in 1898. The harmonies are tender and warm. It's nice to hear Lakeman's mellow tones after listening to him belt it out on the more exuberant tracks. The female backing vocals add a wistful quality. When I hear this track I can understand why Seth Lakeman's music has been described as indie folk, as it combines the traditions of folk with the characteristic indie acoustic guitar strumming. There is an effortlessness about it that appeals to me. I can see how serious folk fans might think this was a pop song and not true folk at all, but whatever genre you try to fit it into, for me this is a song full of poignancy and raw passion. It works for me.
Greed and Gold is a wonderfully atmospheric track. It tells the story of a woman who is robbed of her jewels while staying at a wayside inn. I love its slow, seductive build-up to the story -
"A silent room in the dead of the night
Two lovers lay there entwined.
From a deep sleep to her bed I creep
Great treasures there I find."
Okay, these aren't the greatest lyrics in the world, but they tell the story in a way that captures my imagination. Although it has a Celtic folky flavour, there is also a bluesy quality to this number. It is an effective combination, recreating a dark, sinister mood and developing the tension of the story beautifully.
Perhaps the most moving song on the album is Solomon Browne, which commemorates the story of the Penlee lifeboat disaster in which 16 lives were lost. It's a moving piece about unselfish heroism, sung with a voice full of emotion. What is particularly effective is how when you listen to it, it could easily be a folk song from long ago, because the lyrics reflect the way such disasters were reported in days gone by. Yet this is actually relating a tragedy as recent as 1981. Despite its solemn subject matter this is not a depressing dirge but an impassioned song, celebrating life and courage.
Race to be King is another upbeat piece which has a bluegrass sound to it with banjos along with fiddle, double bass, drums and Jew's harp, reminding me more of the Wild West than Cornwall. (For some reason it put me in mind of a scene from Back to the Future 3 where Doc Brown is dancing a jig with his love interest, Clara!) It tells the story of a whale hunt in frozen seas, not really the sort of subject that I want to be hearing about, but it is another high-energy, almost feverish rendition with bellowing vocals. It may make you want to dance, but some may find the beat a bit repetitious.
I really like this album. I think for anyone who thinks they don't like folk, this is a good album to try, as it isn't 'pure' folk but an intriguing mix of genres. Seth Lakeman deserves great credit for combining folk, rock and pop in such a colourful way and especially for giving it such a sexy edge. Far from selling out, I feel that he has found a way to keep folk music fresh and interesting and to appeal to a wider audience. Why should people restrict their creativity by staying loyal to one genre? Why do they have to fit in with any genre, in fact? Much better to create a unique sound of your own, which is what Seth Lakeman has done, in my opinion.
I like the way this album combines old Cornish folklore with more recent stories, such as the 1981 lifeboat disaster, showing how folk music doesn't just have to be about the distant past. Stories are becoming part of our local history all the time and can always be commemorated in musical form.
It's full of atmosphere and it evokes lots of different emotions in me when I hear it. I do appreciate that one or two tracks are a bit similar and perhaps the tempo is crying out for a bit of variation, but as a kind of concept album about the Cornish coast I think this works very well, certainly creating colourful pictures in my mind as I listen to the tracks and making me long for a holiday in this beautiful part of the world!
I do feel that music like that is really best appreciated in a live performance when you can watch the instruments being played, fully appreciating Seth Lakeman's musicianship (being able to sing while playing the fiddle is no mean feat!) but until I'm able to get to a gig, playing this album will more than suffice.
New copies of the audio CD can be purchased from sellers at Amazon from £4.91, with used copies from £0.91.
Poor Man's Heaven is West Country folk king Seth Lakeman's third album and has much to live up to after the critical and commercial success of his first two albums Kitty Jay and Freedom Fields.
And it does. From the outset each song is injected with passionate lyrics which tell a story, couple with frantic fiddle. The first song, The Hurlers is a brilliant foot stomping song about the myth of a stone formation on Bodmin which is reputed to be formed when some hurlers were turned to stone by the priest for playing their sport on a Sunday.
Feather in a Storm continues in a similar vein; this time with a coastal theme and tell the story of a pirate who lured ships to the rocks in order to steal the cargo. Other stand out tracks include the touching story of the Solomone Browne, the Penlee lifeboat which capsized when Seth was young; I'll Haunt You, Race to Be King and the title track Poor Man's Heaven.
1. "The Hurlers"
2. "Feather in a Storm"
3. "Crimson Dawn"
4. "Blood Red Sky"
5. "Solomon Browne"
6. "Cherry Red Girl"
7. "I'll Haunt You"
8. "Race to Be King"
9. "Poor Man's Heaven"
10. "Greed and Gold"
11. "Sound of a Drum" traditional
The album might not to be to everyone's taste - quite a strong country influence on some songs, yet Seth Lakeman's musicianship and professionalism can't be denied. He's at his best when the folky nature of his song is infused with his fanatical fiddling, with rocky guitar and drums from his band, which includes his brother Sean Lakeman. A talented family indeed as his other brother Sam Lakeman performs with his wife Cara Dillon.
Of course, as I've said about most albums I've reviewed, it's brilliant, but you just have to see the big man live. I've seen him five or six times and love him. He hates being labelled "folk's poster boy" but he must take credit for making this genre of music popular and contemporary.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Feather In A Storm
3 Crimson Dawn
4 Blood Red Sky
5 Solomon Browne
6 Cherry Red Girl
7 I'll Haunt You
8 Race To Be King
9 Poor Man's Heaven
10 Greed And Gold
11 Sound Of A Drum