Legend has it that Merry Hell got their record deal on the back of a discarded demo CD, picked up off the floor after a folk conference. Credit for that goes to Steve Heap and The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories is the third full length album to be released on the deal struck on the back of that fortuitous find, Steve’s car CD player, a quick phone call and meeting doing the rest. Credit where it’s due too, because the new record finds Merry Hell in rambunctious good health, delivering an album with something to say about the state we’re in, whilst also casting an eye over love’s travails and even managing to get a hearty laugh in along the way. Whilst the default setting is high energy, there is also a degree of subtlety, some excellent playing and above all, a great set of songs that easily stand comparison with the best of the breed.
The band of course have pedigree already, coming out of the briefly rekindled embers of The Tansads, a band that cut a similar swathe through the 90s as The levellers, certainly in musical terms, if not outright commercial ones. At the core of that band were the Kettle brothers, Andrew, John and Bob who are all present and correct, but this time around Virginia, a Kettle by marriage to John has also been persuaded to drop her solo career in favour of the band. Keyboard player Lee Goulding and drummer Andy Jones have also made the cross band transition.
While the original Tansads raucous folk rock only survived in its original format to the mid 90s and a revised line up failed to ignite. It was a series of dates organised to signify the band’s 20th anniversary that reconnected with fans and persuaded the brothers there was life in the old dog yet. A change of name to Merry Hell and the demo incident, apart, they’ve also made steady progress through the festival and live circuit, whilst the two previous albums Blink And You’ll Miss It, released in 2011 and from 2013, the following Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain, have also drawn plaudits and reinvigorated their audience.
The line up has also solidified with Neil McCartney, an old school friend of the Kettle brothers taking the fiddle birth. With Dave Swarbrick being in that position, albeit temporarily, on the previous recording, he has some shoes to fill, but then has a lengthy international career of his own to call upon. The latest recruit is bassist Nick Davies, who replaces Andrew Dawson, who played on the last two albums. As for the Kettle’s Andrew has the pleasingly gruff voice, while Virginia is equally strong and sweetens the mix considerably, and both John and Bob provide the mixture of guitar, banjo mandolin and bouzouki with the former also adding to the vocal chorus.
There’s bags of instrumental skill through the band, but the voices really are Merry Hell’s trump card, individually but even more so when together, and as suggested above, the album is energetic, but it’s not all a headlong rush of high tempo frenzy. The opening There’s A Ghost In Our House, gets us going with a steady pulsing beat and a fiddle lick with a suggestive echoing tail. But it’s not sprits from another world, more the unfulfilled promise of lives half lived that haunts proceedings as Andrew and Virginia sing, “It’s not death we fear, but mediocrity, Not dying, but fading away.” The song gets its lift from the instrumental links between verses as the whole band throw their weight behind the tune, but dropping down, the verses are comparatively stripped back adding more weight to the duet between the two leads.
The song is one of seven, including one co-write with Andrew that bear Virginia’s name in the credits, surely proving the wisdom of bringing her on board. That co-write is up next and slows the tempo right down as Leave A Light On explores the pain of separation. Whether its death or simply distance isn’t explicit, and it could be taken either way but there is more than a suggestion of permanence in the closing, “Let the missing be missed no more, Let the lost be found.” It’s a powerful bit of songwriting and Andrew does an excellent job of making it so.
With it’s promise of, “Let the blues be on the wane,” Summer Is A-Comin’ changes the mood with an easy rolling tune, although it still has a card up its sleeve. Although there‘s the prospect of living on the road on £50 a week, there’s also the concern that we have taken our eyes off the value of a simple life well led, as Andrew and Virginia sing, “All my friends are in trouble deep, We’ve been given keys to keep And we’ve fallen asleep.”
In many ways the success of the album is the mix of the political and personal, the two strands are woven together with skill into a strong series of narratives. Amidst their concerns, they have some fun too, Bakers Daughter is another song given a steady thumping beat, with fiddle and mandolin dancing at the edge of the tune, mixing a little gender politics, work ethic and just a hint of lustful intent into its well leavened mix. Rage Like Thunder and Hey Scotty, with their wryly observed mixture of student days, packet noodles, rallying for ideals and the, “Beam me up reference,” of the latter, cast a wistful eye on the aging process. Despite the need for keeping your head down, paying the bills and doing the ironing, there are still the vital signs of a rebel heart beating.
With the embers of rebellion comes a sense of defiance and Pillar Of Society casts the musician as anti-hero asking, “Oh darling can’t you see, What the music means to me.” There’s a suggestion that while there isn’t a fortune to be made, it’s worth the struggle, which spills over into No Money. Here the target is more obviously the free marketers, the bankers and the political betrayal with that sinking feeling of, “My bills come in and my bobs are gone.” Things boil down to more personal battles amidst the country twang of Out Of My Mind, however, as, “All our vengeance unwinds, Tears, desire, pain and fear, Now I’m taking my time, Time to move out of here.”
There are more poignant moments to, building to a sense of outrage on Old Soldier, the anti-war message is loud and clear and the political sleight of hand that promotes it is in the dock. The question is what are we actually fighting for? Merry Hell have been involved in the Armistice Pals, a collaboration between some very talented folk acts, to mark the WWI Centenary and the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many. But affairs of the heart also rise to the top in Love Is A Game and Reason To Be. There are two sides of the coin with the careless innocence with which we rush into romantic entanglement on one side, and the difficulty of keeping the flames alight when we get there on the other. The first tells us that “Love is a game with no rules, Played by gamblers and dreamers and fools,” while the second offers, “All of this my love was never why you chose me, It’s no reason to be.”
There is room in the songbook for a little optimism too. The anthemic Human Communion, which Virginia leads, asks us to join together in celebration of our common humanity and has audience participation written right through it. Feed Your Soul is an adrenalin rush, an amped up rocker that also asks us to stand together, but this time also asks us to carry the fight suggesting, “We can be the generation that opens up the door, We can be part of the real solution, What are we waiting for.” That song sits as the penultimate track and is followed by the calmer acoustic waltz-time strum of No Place Like Tomorrow, which neatly leads us towards the dawn of a new day, where, “The whole world looks different when seen at first light.”
Musically with there are songs like Summer Is A-Comin’ with its prominent bass drum and brightly strummed acoustic guitars, that hark back to the classic 70’s sound of say Lindisfarne, without ever being dated. Overall, however, the sound hits a sweet spot somewhere around Oysterband territory, strongly melodic, sprightly, vigorous and packed with fine playing and instrumental detail. Ultimately they sound exactly like Merry Hell and have enough about them to claim their own distinct place in folk-rock’s lineage. As I was writing this, my wife wandered through and perhaps caught the mood, saying something along the lines of, “They seem to be having a really good time singing about hard times.” In some ways that’s true, it’s there in their name of course and The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories is suped-up folk to make you think, but also to make you smile, sing along and if you see fit, bounce around like a lunatic. If you’re listening solo at home, all on your own if needs be. Go on! It’ll sure make you feel good.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories is released 30th March 2015
Pre-Order via Amazon
Upcoming Gigs: The Ghost Tour
The Empire, Shepherds Bush, London
Saturday 4th April
The Studio, Widnes
Friday 24th April
The Ruby Lounge, Manchester
Saturday 25th April
The Exchange, Keighley
Friday 1st May
The freebird, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Saturday 2nd May
The Miller, London
Thursday 7th May
Cottage of Content, Chasetown
Friday 8th May
The Old Courts, Wigan
Saturday 9th May
Barnsley Rock & Blues
Sunday 10th May
The Globe, Glossop
Thursday 14th May
Merry Hell Acoustic
The Ulverston Sports Club, Ulverston
Friday 15th May
Merry Hell Acoustic