Bellowhead – Broadside (Navigator Records / October 15 2012)
By Neil Edwards
It was third time plucky for Bellowhead, whose last album, Hedonism, became the biggest selling independently released folk album of all time. That’s quite an achievement given that ‘independence’ is ostensibly what folk-music was rustled up to celebrate in the first place. From The Beatles to The Bee Gees, there’s barely a pop legend worthy of the status that didn’t cut its teeth on traditional folk standards before a Brian Epstein or a Phil Spector came ambling along with the promise of bigger things.
Traditional folk music, however, isn’t just a modern-day apprenticeship to the business of making music, but a solid introduction to the unique intelligibility of the form. It’s a music lesson, a history lesson and a cautionary tale all rolled up into one. In the right hands, it can also be a riot! Bellowhead don’t need to be reminded of this, of course. Broadside – their most accomplished (indeed, most riotous) album to date – was conceived to stimulate the effect of a warship’s guns all being fired from one side simultaneously; and that’s certainly the effect you’ll get if you ever stumble upon one of their notorious live stage shows. If they do fall slightly short trying to replicate the same effect on this album, it isn’t for want of trying, but due simply to the inherent difficulties of trying to bottle the intensity of their spellbinding live act. To wham that point home even more, the band have become a magnet for countless gongs and accolades, taking the laurels for ‘Best Live Act’ in the BBC Folk Awards an unprecedented five times.
The new album – produced by John Leckie – is a beguiling concoction. It starts off earnestly enough, whittling out a rousing chorus of ‘Byker Hill’ – a gutsy anthem dedicated to the colliers of east Newcastle – before turning truly menacing with ‘Black Beetle Pies’, a sinister ode that wouldn’t be out of place in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, with Jon Boden’s vocals scuttling playfully around Pete Flood’s skittish arrangement like a younger, wilder- eyed, David Bowie.
Amidst all this, a turbulent wash of mad and dangerous tunes get trepanned through the band’s secret weapon – a four piece brass section which fits the nautical folksiness like a pirate fits a gibbet. ‘Lillibullero’, the Irish nursery rhyme-cum-marching song – and one of the most infectious jigs in the world – gets the full service with an audacious make-over. Boden’s literal re-jig repositions the song as a brazen ballad featuring old Beelzebub himself.
A bigger kick is provided by ‘The Wife Of Usher’s Well’, who delivers the most pimped-up shanty you’ll hear this side of Blackbeard’s grave. Out goes the corn-dolly cosiness of Steeleye Span, and in sweeps Proteus, Old Man of the sea, bit-parting in the tragic tale of a ‘Carlin wife’ who loses her three sons to his querulous whims. “I wish the wind may never cease,” she mourns, “Nor fashes in the flood, till my three sons come home to me, in earthly flesh and blood”. The sons do indeed return, but only, it seems, to compound their mother’s grief five fathoms more.
Hedonism sold 60,000 copies when released and went silver. It also inspired its own beer, a 4.5% golden summer ale, brewed by Potbelly Brewery in Kettering. If Broadside goes gold, expect something a lot stronger – something that might even feel like a thousand cannonballs crashing down on you at the same time. If that happens, the first round’s on me!
Bellowhead will be touring this November. To see what all the fuss is about, check out their website for details: www.bellowhead.co.uk/live.