Oxonian five-piece Telling The Bees return with with a slightly tinkered new line-up on their third LP Steer By The Stars. Its striking cover art is once more the work of Rima Staines, whose eerie, timeless, pagan flourishes give some hint as to the musical content.
Lead track A Puppeteer Came Into Town mixes the occult and the political in a way that recalls Russell Hoban’s dystopian novel Ridley Walker, with Andy Letcher’s narrative skill and Jim Penny’s deft concertina to the fore. It is made even spookier by the distorted Punch and Judy sound effects. Oxford May Song is a much more traditional-sounding affair, and its swift melody and stirring chorus are handled with aplomb. It is both a tribute and a companion piece to Oxford’s annual May Morning celebrations.
One More Mazurka carries apocalyptic themes and a distinctly central European flavour, while the band dip into a renaissance sound on The Oxberg March, with results that compare pretty well with a touchstone in that particular field, namely The John Renbourn Group’s 1977 album A Maid In Bedlam.
Throughout, the musicians prove to be more than competent individually and, perhaps more importantly, appear to complement each other in a way that hints at years of hard work and live collaboration. On Babylon, for example, Jane Griffiths’ assured fiddle playing interacts with both Penny’s concertina and Letcher’s voice to create textures not often heard in acoustic music.
Lyrically, Letcher lopes between traditional tropes and contemporary political issues, often within the space of one song, as is the case with the timely and sombre I Fear These Tory Radicals. It is an adaptation of a two hundred year old piece of writing by John Clare, but its sentiments are strangely current. The album concludes with the unhurried title track, probably the most ‘contemporary’ sounding song here, it glimmers and fades. The subtle production is guided by Letcher’s soft, insistent mandolin. It is a low-key triumph, rounding off a record full of constant, impressive surprises.
Review by: Thomas Blake
04 Jul – Apiary Studios, Téléplasmiste + Telling the Bees + St Moritzz – 7.30pm
10 – 12 Jul – Priddy Folk Festival, Somerset
04 Aug – Sidmouth Folk Week (Spiro + Telling the Bees), Bulverton Marquee, Sidmouth