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The Men They Couldn't Hang have always been a band that are difficult to define in the scheme of things. More a rock band employing folk style than the other way round, too straight for the traveller crowd, too progressive for the folk purists and too obscure to reach the main stream they have hung about in the musical ether for twenty odd years, and I bet most of you reading this have never heard of them. Rising from a collection of small time bands and buskers from Londons squat scene, TMTCH have been knocking out original and unequalled albums for years and in many peoples opinion, mine included, their defining moment came with 1988s Waiting for Bonaparte. The combination of the punch caricature of Wellington that graces the cover and the song titles themselves give you an idea of where these boys are coming from. But they are no mere actors donning an image for affect; these guys are the real deal, the modern day troubadours keeping alive the spirit of an almost forgotten past. But where there has been a trend in modern times to tap into a half imagined Celtic dreamtime of mysticism and stone circles, heroes and fallen angels, the material here is far more tangible. Like fellow stalwarts, Blyth Power, they are keeping alive a much more recent and relevant slice of history. Their songs repackage and offer up stories from the Industrial Revolution, Nelsons fleet, train drivers and smugglers. A lesser band could make these themes seem like a bad Boys Own Adventure story, but the mix of historical observation and poetic lyrical content makes this rise above the efforts of lesser mortals.
Waiting For Bonaparte was the bands third album and contained some of the bands defining moments and as well as many of the live favourites still regularly played at the live gigs. The two previous albums Night of A Thousand Candles and How Green Was My Valley contained moments where you could glimpse future brilliance but showed that the band were still a bit unfocused. Here though, everything just came together in those rare moments of clarity. The album opens with a drone and drum beat which builds until the trade mark mandolin cuts right through your spine and drags you headlong into The Crest, a song of breaking that tradition of going off to war to be sacrificed, just because that's what the men of the family always have done. From its country influenced opening licks to the fade out as the band echo away into nothing, The Crest really sets out the store and prepares you for the roller coaster ride that this album offers.
The more acoustic jaunt of Smugglers follows, a traditional song given a new coat. The craggy coasts of Ailsa Craig play host to a tale of brandy smuggling and excise men and although this acoustic guitar dominated tune is an age-old folk standard it still has all the hallmarks and originality of the band in its delivery, even if they cant make claim on its creation. From here the album momentarily steps down to its most mellow point and you find yourself on a ferryboat returning to harbour after years at sea, in Dover Lights. Here the most basic of music is built up into more than the sum of its parts by the clever layering of one, then two voices and a whole gang chorus that seems quite apt for this navel style sing along.
Teachers of England instructed me well, strength comes from iron and fire,
Freedom was won from the barrel of the gun; law comes from palace and spire
I carried the wealth of this land across the sea till the ships and the cargoes grew slack,
Now many Jack Tar is washed up in a bar, many ships will never come back
In those first three songs you have a taste of the flavour of this album, at its heart its very nautical. There is plenty of room for the Men's other regular themes, trains, criminals and outcasts, the military and the underdog. Musically the mandolin is often the favoured weapon of choice, which makes a nice change to the guitar. Bounty Hunter in particular makes great use of this, spiralling up and away from the song on the lead before being reined in for more subtle work on the rest of the song. The vocals as usual make a full and powerful back drop on which the rest of the song is pinned, like a mini male voice choir the band give rise to some sumptuous harmonies and the music surges on in a relentless charge which you can only let wash over you and carry you away. For Island in the Rain its back to the maritime imagery of shorelines and harbours, here the setting is the Isle of Wight and a very personal reflection of places from the writers past. The music surges in and out like the breaking tide as the song ebbs and flows from lone mandolin refrains to full blown harmonies.
Historical tales, real or imagined are often the theme of the songs, and in the Colours the hero of the piece is a mutineer singing his lament from the gallows as he tells of the conditions and hardships they had to endure at sea, and how he always did his duty. A rousing sing along that in traditional folk style employs regularly repeated choruses to make the song accessible to all and mixing the left wing social penning of Thomas Paine with a musical account of life at sea in Georgian times. It's an odd mix of calypso edged rock and more authentic historical folk approaches.Politics and stomping rabble rousing folk rock all in one energetic package.
"Red is the colour of the new republic,
blue is the colour of the sea,
white is the colour of my innocence
not surrender to your mercy"
This style of song typifies the Men's ability to have one eye on the history of the tales and another on the injustices of the times. This song also gives you an idea of their live sound, boisterous; sing along drinking songs, an energetic band and an even more energetic audience.
Midnight Train is another paced number, with its full on rockabilly beat and double vocals, something again used to great affect, with two excellent front men in the band, and the vocals are always sumptuous and often epic. They do show a more reflective side on Fathers Wrong, a track that takes the difficult subject of child abuse and manages to maintain a dignified and poignant stance. If there was such a thing as Heavy Folk (Heavy Wood?) then Life of a Small Fry is it in all its glory. Guitars and mandolins are played through heavy metal effects pedals and the song teeters through out its duration on the edge of anarchy.
The final song, Marys Present is one of the most immediate on the album and certainly the most pop orientated and as the song fades with the final words your futures been stolen by the past an allusion to a forthcoming unexpected child, you might reflect that the opposite of this statement is actually what the band are all about. They have stolen the past from the dry teachings and dusty books and brought it to light for the future.
The album manages to mix an intricate way of blending different acoustic instruments, without losing the clarity and depth, but in such a way that creates a powerful force, which will get you up and dancing. Its a pity that the term "dance music" has so many connotations because to me this is the ultimate dance music, every song makes you want to stomp or dance, waltz or sway, this is what originally dance music would have been like, and The Men They Couldnt Hang blend these old folk styling with some great contemporary sounds, and manage to tell an informative story along the way.
To sum up, this is an album to play, as you are getting ready to go out on a Friday night, this is music for those loud party nights. Its also the music that showed people that you could mix folk with rock without watering it down. Most of all on a personal level, this is the band that made me want to become a musician. Buy it, play it loud and then go and see them live, it changed my life, you just never know........