Seth Lakeman’s previous album, Tales from the Barrel House, showed he was determined to move on from his dalliance with the more mainstream side of the music business. His latest release, Word of Mouth, is a milestone on that journey, in a very literal sense it is an exploration of his Devon and Cornwall roots. Last summer, he and his band set up a temporary studio in North Tamerton Church, Cornwall and recorded songs crafted out of conversations between Seth and people he’d met on and around his home patch. 12 songs are available as an audio CD, but also released is a bookpack of 2 CDs, DVD and booklet. The second CD contains 3 further songs but, more interestingly, 9 tracks that interweave songs from CD1 with recordings of the corresponding interview. The DVD is a film of the making of Word of Mouth whilst the booklet contains lyrics, photographs and brief background text.
The characters providing the stories range from Rowena Cade, the rather upper crust lady who, until her death in 1993, was the driving force behind the Minack Open Air Theatre, right across the social spectrum to Ken Webster and Carl Bailey, two travellers, now settled down but still hankering for the road. They all have fascinating stories to tell and the tracks on CD2 mix music and spoken word following in the footsteps of Charles Parker and Ewan MacColl and their hour long Radio Ballads. A difference here is that Word of Mouth deals with 11 different and largely unrelated topics, each covered in 4 to 5 minute songs, so whilst the technique still works, its power to engage the listener and draw them into a story is much weakened.
At the heart of all this material lie the 11 songs that Seth has teased out of the local stories and characters, the twelfth song on CD1, Portrait of My Wife is a reworking of a traditional song collected by Frank Kidson and ‘borrowed’ from Seth’s work with The Full English. Seth Lakeman has always done a good line in fast-paced compositions, driven along either by his trademark short sharp fiddle strokes or the strumming of his tenor guitar; it’s largely what has made him such a popular festival act. It’s a style that’s not best suited to storytelling but nonetheless is used in 4 of the songs. It works best for The Courier an imagined tale of an ancient messenger hurrying along the Maltern Way, a medieval track across the heart of Dartmoor. It’s far less clear why The Ranger, written after a conversation with the head ranger of the National Park, should need to evoke such urgency. I can see why, in seeking balance for the CD, one would look to changes of pace but it does seem that the slower, more lyrical songs are far more effective at delivering the sense of people and places that a project such as this aims to achieve.
A stand out track among these slower songs is Labour She Calls Home. The song gives a flavour of the dedication that Rowena Cade gave to the Minack Theatre and is one of several to feature the voice of Lisbee Stainton. Lisbee is the latest recruit to Seth’s regular band and her presence adds a welcome depth to the vocals, her softer tones blending extremely well with Seth’s. The Saddest Crowd, a song that recalls the arrival in Plymouth of survivors from the Titanic, is another that makes excellent use of the blending of their voices. The remaining members of the regular band are long term Seth collaborators, Ben Nicholls on double bass and concertina and Cormac Byrne on bodhrán and percussion whilst brother Sean on acoustic guitar and dad Geoff Lakeman on backing vocals also contribute. Notable among the guest musicians is India Bourne, her cello adding dramatically to the texture of the opening track, The Wanderer.
Converting the church into a temporary recording studio was very much a deliberate choice, for Seth it was about capturing the sound of the room, in his view a much-forgotten part of the recording process, “I enjoyed the honesty and edginess of that, the instruments, certainly wooden instruments, breathe a bit more.” You can surely hear the effect and I wonder what Adam Nunn, who mastered the album at Abbey Road, thought of the choice. On tracks such as Bells, given that the song is about the bell ringers of the church, the acoustics of the space seem to have been allowed a starring rôle, and to good effect. Elsewhere on the album, though, the influence is less welcome; for example there are passages where I feel Lisbee’s voice should have been better defined.
For all these slight disappointments, this remains a significant project for someone of Seth Lakeman’s stature to have undertaken. I think it unfair to characterise it just as Seth returning to his roots, throughout his career he’s steered a sinuous path that sometimes takes him, musically and geographically, far from home, sometimes brings him back to the people and places that encouraged his talents to flourish. Word of Mouth is perhaps his clearest and sincerest acknowledgement of those links and deserves to be listened to. If you are tempted to buy, please treat yourself to the full 3 disc bookpack, the songs mean so much more if you also hear and read the background.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Currently on tour in Europe Seth heads to Australia later this month where he’ll also be supporting Suzanne Vega at Brisbane’s Powerhouse before returning to the UK in May where he’s supporting he’s supporting Billy Bragg at the Hammersmith Apollo on 1st May. Check his website for full tour dates and festival appearances.
The Courier – The Background Interview
Full Album Stream (Via Deezer)
Released 3 Feb 2014 via Cooking Vinyl
Order via: Amazon