On receiving the new CD from Harp And a Monkey three things immediately grabbed me. The first was a passage in the press release, which informed me that the band and their sound came about by happy accident. Tired of treading over the same ground, the trio of long term friends Martin Purdy, Simon Jones and Andy Smith conspired to buy one musical instrument each that they had never played before. They reasoned that getting to grips with a new instrument per man might necessarily simplify their playing styles and at least prove interesting. The second was the handsome CD package with its Red Riding Hood referencing front cover (actually a photo of a family dog in a nightgown) and nicely annotated booklet. The third happened when I slipped the CD into the player. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but the intro immediately had my attention.
Crucially what followed didn’t disappoint either and All Life Is Here is quite brilliant. A set of songs that seamlessly merges a folk purity with a gently woozy electronica, the sound really is quite special. The proof of the merits of their experimental approach is in a pudding that is part hearty, Lancashire, rib-sticking indulgence and part subtle spicing and flavour that lingers long after the pleasure of consumption.
Arguably the one musical style where a strong regionality works best in this country is folk music, in all its myriad guises. Rather than some media confection designed to broad brush disparate music under a soundbite ready category such as Madchester, or for you older folk Merseybeat, there can actually be a sense of genuine connection to home turf. It’s the one musical style that readily supports and even encourages singing in regional accents, but more than that folk songs have a way of connecting with history, which can be further refined to suit location. The knock on is that even new, original material will often alight on local stories and concerns and align with an areas legends, fables, characters and indeed character.
There’s one other thing to be plucked from the Harp And A Monkey’s biography, which uses the word hauntological and this definition proves most instructive. “The idea suggests that the present exists only with respect to the past, and that society after the end of history will begin to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that are thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”; that is, towards the “ghost” of the past.” There is also the notion that those who ignore history are bound to repeat the same mistakes again and again and there’s more than a hint of that here too.
With this recording done in their North Manchester studio, the most obvious local signposts are to be found in Bolton’s Yard and The Manchester Angel, but there is much more than just a Lancashire hotpot within these songs. The humour of the anachronistic Mole Catcher, the moving lament of Galipoli Oak, the blight of the working man’s Pay Day and wilds of the moorlands Pilgrims Cross retain the local landmark ethos but offer a view out to wider horizons.
You might also say that their sound is a similar blend of the familiar and the somewhat more exotic. There’s unquestionably something reassuring about the bluff Lancastrian tones of Martin’s voice and the CD, after its striking opening starts in fairly straightforward fashion. The instrumental mix at the start of Walking In The Footsteps Of Giants is banjo, guitar and the surge of a fiddle adding a little drama. Martin is sonorous, his singing robust but also drenched in reverb creating an atmospheric portent that builds from the chorus through the second verse towards the songs climax. It’s subtly done and typifies the gentle shifts in the sound bed of the album, with a gently pattering percussion and sampled cuts to the voice of Albert Charlesworth, reminiscing about heading to Spain to fight Franco.
The song itself is about how ordinary working men rose to heed the call to fight Fascism, through nothing but a sense of idealism. The war theme continues into the next song too and The Manchester Angel comes to Harp And A Monkey from Ewan MacColl’s recording in the mid 60s. As the sleeve notes for the CD point out, it’s unusual to find a soldier who seems prepared to act honourably towards a young maid, but then of course war intervenes and the story has no happy end.
Tupperware And Tinfoil is a wonderfully evocative title and a no less wonderful song. Atop skittering electronic beats and pulses, given more prominence this time, the guitar and banjo riffs lead a song rich in imagery like, “Tupperware and tinfoil, flasks of luke-warm tea, two hours from now love, we’ll paddle in cold sea.” Day trips and holidays are instantly recalled, but the song also has its point to make about memories and the passage of time.
Harp And A Monkey are clearly extremely capable songsmiths and each of these compositions has a genuine weight. Take the recurring theme of journeys to be found on the record, which serves to display the depth and breadth of their thinking. In no particular order, Doolally Day Out is another winning title and song, which pokes gentle fun at coach trips to Bogart Hole Clough. While quietly questioning the sanity of some amongst the bus loads that descend on the beauty spot near to the guys’ base, it also acknowledges the need to release the safety valve, that fuels such excursions. The Pilgrims Cross, however, is about belief and paying the ultimate sacrifice. Anyone who knows the moors and rises around the southern end of the Pennines, Rossendale, Bowland and Pendle will know how the bleak beauty can turn savage in minutes. It’s not just sanity that’s questioned, but faith and fate.
Marrying the themes of journey and soldiering, Galipoli Oak, is based around a truly moving story of the father of one of the Rochdale teenagers killed at Galipoli transporting an oak sapling to the allied military cemetery in Turkey. It’s a profound and powerful piece, from the pride of the departing ranks to mourning the thousands of young lives lost and a singular act of grief that spoke for so many.
The black comedy of Molecatcher, with it’s revenge and warning of the consequence of infidelity, Pay Day and the all embracing Bolton’s Yard, which gives the album its title, are all re-workings from traditional sources. The notes for the latter in particular, delights in Harp And A Monkey’s tampering with the originals, in this case a poem by Henry Boardman, who I’m sure would have approved. As they point out, the site in question is now occupied by an Aldi supermarket, which speaks volumes in itself.
Pay Day, casts an ironic eye over this lament for the working man’s misfortune and the one day a week to look forward to. The chance would be a fine thing for many now that the traditional employers, textile manufacturers and other industries have long since left these shores.
That leaves Dear Daughter, a song written by Martin when he and his wife were convinced that their expected child would be a girl. It’s another brilliant song, full of clever rhymes like, “Kiss the boys and make them cry, Like Amy Johnson aim high.” It manages to cram Rosa Parkes and Joan of Arc into the opening verse with a call to disobey when it’s the right thing to do. That Martin’s wife delivered them a boy diminishes it not one jot, although the appropriate sequel would be most welcome.
Although it’s not the final track it seemed appropriate to save that song until last, as it encapsulates so much of what is so good about this CD and with it what is so good about Harp And A Monkey. It’s a clever thoughtful piece that both musically and lyrically has a touch of fond irreverence, but makes its point. If there’s a tongue in cheek it’s also earnest and committed. The electronic interference with the more traditional acoustic instrumentation is strangely organic and natural. Everything seems in its place to just the right degree. It makes light of any experimental, folktronica or weirdlore tag to sound – well – ‘strangely strange but oddly normal.’ And that, as we well know, is a very good thing indeed.
Review by: Simon Holland