A paradox exists in the English folk music: the best way for new performers to sound fresh and exciting is by embracing outdated dialects, utilising old vernacular phrases, becoming wilfully localised. In short, eschewing the homogenised version of the English language that we know today. A folk singer may be incredibly talented, may have a bigger vocal range than Mariah Carey and a wider repertoire than Cecil Sharp’s parrot, but if she delivers it in perfect BBC English with a band of competent musicians in a big studio with a big budget, she’s going to have to do something pretty special to excite anyone. As a result, much of the most thrilling contemporary English folk is currently being made in the parishes and shires. As bands and artists seek to rediscover the joys of making music for its own sake, and for the people, a happy by-product is that the music itself gains a sense of place (and the greater depth of feeling that goes along with the idea of geographical ‘belonging’). The north-east of England seems to be at the forefront of this loose movement towards localism (the Unthanks being a fine example) but other areas – the West Country, East Anglia – are catching up.
Perhaps because it is (and has been for hundreds of years) a huge and cosmopolitan capital, London seems to have produced relatively few new folk acts willing to embrace the city’s history and the unique cadences of its working class accents. Stick In The Wheel are well-placed to redress that imbalance. They hail squarely from the East End, and you know it as soon as Nicola Kearley starts singing Four Loom Weaver, the opening track on their wonderful new EP, Bones. It doesn’t matter that the song is from Lancashire and not London; in fact it is proof that the universal and the local can coexist in folk music, and in the most gratifying of ways, with Kearney’s distinctive voice giving a personal and coruscating edge to a tale of nineteenth century hardship that would have befallen thousands.
Four Loom Weaver is one of only two traditional songs on the EP. The other, and possibly the best track here, is Bedlam. Rattled out with dark glee, it is punky, skiffly, almost like early Pogues in its energy, with Kearley sounding like a Gin Lane hooker (I hope she takes that as the compliment it’s meant to be).
Of the original tracks, All The Things shows that the group can do melodic sophistication, and is an excellent showcase for Ian Carter’s hypnotic guitar, which has the feel of early Steeleye Span about it. Poor Old Man with its clear harmonies is more eager and more traditional in feel: the lyrics are dark and the delivery is stark and blunt, lending a timeless feel to the song. The closing track is an atmospheric instrumental not unlike the darker, more pagan offerings of the Owl Service or even the Xenis Emputae Travelling Band.
Stick In The Wheel, more successfully than any other band I’ve heard in a very long time, embody the paradox of making great, vital and unashamedly new music from influences and constituent parts that are ancient, highly personal and brimming with local individuality. They are London at its dirty, inspired best.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Folk Radio UK Session:
Bones is out now, available via Bandcamp.