The second album from Manchester collective The Woodbine and Ivy Band is nothing if not diverse. Kicking off with title track Sleep On Sleeping On, we encounter sleepy electronic waves and itchy percussion before the more familiar sound of acoustic guitar introduces itself. Then swathes of steel guitar and cool brass locate the track somewhere between Latin pop, southern-fried country and east coast jazz cool, a la Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock. The synths nod to the ambient end of jazz rock and the vocal refrain has something in common with Bob Dylan’s underrated All The Tired Horses from his Self Portrait LP. And wait, what’s that? A trace of dream pop and pinch of Tusk era Fleetwood Mac? Yes, five minutes in and I have to admit that I’m confused. It’s a pleasant kind of confusion though, and one that teases with glimpses of recognition like half-remembered dreams.
And it doesn’t let up. Jenny McCormick’s sweet vocals impart an almost Victorian sense of melancholy to Arm A Nation, a song whose subject matter is very much contemporary and whose music – simple folk meets soft rock before an extended outro stuffed with Hammond organ – is located firmly in the 1970s. White Hare is a meaty update of a well-loved folk song most famously performed by the Albion Band. The distorted guitars evoke the heavier side of Steeleye Span but the strident horns and final, treated vocals emphasise the band’s preference for plundering multiple genres simultaneously, an approach similar to the likes of The Trembling Bells or even Tunng.
The brief instrumental Jackdaws begins with a scene-setting field recording before rippling into a dream of fingerpicked pastoral acoustica courtesy of guest musician David A. Jaycock, while clouds of synth move slowly overhead. Pretty Fly Lullaby is draped in gentle piano, strings and film score lushness, fittingly, as it is taken from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter.
On an album full of flitting ideas and flights of fancy, the nine-minute centrepiece Minstrel and the King acts as a kind of anchor. A cover of an old Heron song, it begins gently enough – all undulating horns and pretty harp – but moves from folk-rock narrative to spacy horn-led jam. It unfolds so naturally, though, that the song’s many switches in tone are barely noticeable. Equally affecting is a beautiful, autumnal cover of Lal Waterson’s Flight of the Pelican. The spacious arrangement, sparse steel guitar and McCormick’s vulnerable singing highlight Waterson’s ambivalent but spine-tingling lyrics.
Elsewhere, One Summer Day is a Hammond-heavy jam propelled along in a kraut-funk haze by nagging percussion, while the two traditional songs that close the album show that the band can do straightish folk too. Rebel Soldier is particularly pleasing, John Ellis’s minimal piano underpinning the sadness of the song’s subject.
It is tempting to describe Sleep On Sleeping On as one of the most exciting and inventive folk albums of recent times, but that would be missing the point. The Woodbine and Ivy Band’s collective spirit and magpie approach to songwriting and arrangement really does away with the need for genre pigeonholing, while the fact that this approach works so well so often is a testament to the talent of the individuals involved. This album should be celebrated for what it is: a brimming cauldron of musical ideas with a surprisingly coherent end product.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Out Now via Static Caravan (Limited Edition CD 500)
Order it here