The last time I was charged with reviewing the Urban Folk Quartet, it involved a gig and the recording of their second live CD. The performance at London’s Sebright Arms was one of two shows, faithfully recorded and edited down, without trickery, to put their best licks forward onto the appropriately, if prosaically, titled Live II CD, that being their second live album release. I say prosaically, but the CD was a statement of the facts, it’s just that those facts encompassed two gigs of almost unbelievable virtuosity, intensity, free range musicality and above all, great beaming-grin-fun. On reflection of course, that description doesn’t make for a credible album title, but I can guarantee that everyone who saw the shows would be feeling the same, the atmosphere at the one I was lucky enough to be at was electric and the audience was absolutely bouncing. Nobody would argue with that CD’s assertion that the UFQ is primarily a live band, one that tries to give everyone a special experience. But then along comes The Escape, the brand new album and with that, the realisation that they are every bit as good and more in the studio environment too.
There have been changes. At the time of the last review, the UFQ were in a cycle of studio then live albums, which continues for sure, but about a year ago, before Towersey Festival, Tom Chapman, the band’s percussionist, told Folk Radio UK that even the studio albums were essentially recorded live. He dropped a hint that things might change for the next record and that is indeed the case. The most immediate impression is of a much fuller sound, not that the others are in any way deficient, but the use of electric bass is notable. Live, they’ve always used an octave pedal to fill the bottom end, but here the chance to overdub has been exploited to their advantage.
In the same interview we covered the bigger change with the departure of co-founder and oud (Arabic lute) player Frank Moon for pasture new. He’s been replaced by another exceptional musical talent in the shape of Dan Walsh, whose claw hammer banjo playing is renowned around the world. As you’d expect that features strongly here, but he’s a pretty damn nifty guitar player too, opening up the UFQ’s veratility. Obviously the oud and banjo are distinctive and very different musical voices, but both the outgoing Frank and his replacement, Dan, are such fine players, that the transfer is at once significant and all but irrelevant. It’s still all about the blend of instruments that UFQ have at their command and the dynamics of the sound they create together.
It’s of note that the twin fiddle attack of Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigás individually share the bigger slice of the writing credits, although Tom and Dan also contribute. I contacted Tom with a couple of questions and he offered some insight into how UFQ work explaining, “Usually someone will bring in a significant contribution – a melody and riff, or a song with some chords, for example. Then we sit and work on it for a very, very long time! We’re not afraid to scrap things that don’t work and if something’s going somewhere we’ll keep going until everybody loves it. That’s how we get to a point where something is in the live set, which is the base of the vast majority of the material on the record – nine out of the ten tracks have been worked on in rehearsal and on the road over Dan’s first year with us.”
Joe is also responsible for more of the arranging, especially when it comes to strings, where again overdubs are used for the first time. Again Tom adds a little insight and confirms, “Joe did a lot of extra arrangement for the album – the bass lines and strings being notable examples. Other things came through collaboration in the studio – experimenting with extra percussion, backing vocals, that sort of thing. An exception would be The Language Barrier where I presented most of the melody and some chords and gave Joe free reign to arrange it, knowing he’d transform it into something I’d love.” In fairness, everyone chips in and the bulk are band arrangements, although some obviously pre-date Dan’s arrival and Frank gets a credit where due.
Joe also produced the sessions with mixing and mastering help from Andie Thompson. Tom explained how having Joe in the producers chair changed things telling me, “Our previous albums have been ‘live in the studio’ or live in front of audiences, so the bulk of what’s recorded has been based heavily on live arrangements. With The Escape, Joe was able to take on a producer’s role more like how he’s become known for when working with other people. When we played, he wasn’t having to play at the same time as being in the control room. It also left space for us to naturally extend our process and experiment a little more with what goes down. There were only two rules: everything had to be played or sung by just the four of us, and it would all need to be material that would be played in the new live show, which were really enjoyable parameters to work within.”
Tom continues, highlighting the role that Andie played as another plus, revealing, “Another advantage to the way we worked was teaming up with Andie Thomson at Gighouse Recording Studios. We struck up a really good working relationship with him and between visits there and working in conjunction with advice from him at Joe’s SAE [studio], this has got to be the highest quality record we’ve made, sonically speaking.”
It’s also a typically adventurous mix, but as always, with method over madness as Tom insists, “We’re all thirsty to explore what’s possible on our instruments at the fertile crossing points and edges of genre. We love, listen to and play so many different types of music that it feels very natural to us to experiment in that way. Many of our musical heroes were doing something similar from early jazz and bluegrass right up to Paul Simon and beyond. One thing we never want to do is lazily stick one style on top of another. For me personally, part of the joy of being in this band with these people is that constant striving to find a place where we’re making something genuinely different, without resorting to the completely avant-garde!”
The Escape is a nice mix of songs and tunes with a strong flavour of the Americas about the former, as Boat Up The River is laced with bourbon and a hint of the mighty Mississippi and 500 Miles is laced with tears and is the near kin of Reuben’s Train. I wondered whether these might display the influence of Dan, but while he’s credited for having learnt the latter from Debbie McClatchy and thus introduced it to UFQ, both are full band arrangements. Altogether more surprising is Resiste, with a touch of the Buena Vistas and a hint of the languid bossa-beat about it too. Paloma’s voice turns the song into a daiquiri smooth glide with a dash of the sultry Joyce, perfectly blended and shaken, not stirred. The final song is a complete contrast, however, with an almost mystical evocation of love in The Snow That Melts The Soonest, all singing winds and the natural world held to account for the vagaries of the human heart.
Tom is spot on when he highlights the difference simple things like the backing vocals have made, but the bass too is expertly played by Joe to add to his usual mix of fiddle, guitar and mandolin. The strings are perhaps fuller and amidst the fiery playing that you expect from Joe and Paloma, they add structure, weight and texture. Dan’s banjo provides the usual flurries, but between him and Joe there is also some exceptional guitar playing, whether riding Tom’s polyrhythms or picking out a whole new set of tangents, negotiating the intricacies with micro precision. Those who are familiar with UFQ will know what to expect in the instrumental patterns that seem to have that subtle natural shift, like a wind-blown wheat-field, or a Pollock painting. At times it must be like the perfect slalom run, or the moment the tube closes around a surfer – that kind of exhilaration – a shamanistic grasp of musical shape shifting.
In so many ways the record sounds different with each play, an inexhaustible supply of highlights bubble up. On the title track it’s African one moment then Celtic the next, both and neither simultaneously, but The Escape really does sound fundamentally different to anything else out there. Sure there are other bands who can play up a storm and another quartet, Spiro – recently covered and rightly praised here – spring to mind. Both they and UFQ rely of the players’ precision to create their unique lattice of sounds, yet for Spiro’s beautiful, jewelled clockwork, UFQ are the fuzzy logic theorem. Yet both will lead you to the prime numbers of pleasure, even if the routes are different.
I can’t really hope to describes the tunes and sets with any accuracy, but there are so many hooks for you to find for yourselves. Yet there are some moments of pure innovation. The opening guitar funk of Upward Spiral / Brink, with its somewhat wistful tune and the way the banjo sounds, subtle at first, before the sudden shift in pace as the interplay with the fiddle takes off. There’s the grungy beginning to The On On set, while the midsection, The Getway, is harum-scarum and the final part Control Zed has a Balkan (or further eastern) exoticism and a quick fire percussion break that puts Tom at firmly the head of the cajonero league. The Breakthrough set is huge and sounds custom made to drive audiences into a frenzy, offering moments of ecstatic release in the blissful breakdowns. The penultimate track, The Beginning Of The End, again adds more exotic flavours, as fiddles and banjo lock on and the guitar beefs up the riff. Finally The Language Barrier is for mind rather than body and a tune of elegant beauty, with swelling strings and mandolin, guitar and banjo all picking a gently meandering course. It’s a beautiful piece.
You sense this is an important record for UFQ. While everything so far has been geared towards the moment of performance, for The Escape, they step back and that seems to have proved liberating, but then they have almost limitless reserves of musicality to call upon. This is the band at their brilliant best and for those that know their UFQ, it’s what they do so very well, only more so. For those less familiar, start here, absorb it thoroughly, but then see them live as soon as you can, because as Tom says, “We absolutely cannot wait to hit the road. Playing live is what we live for and it’s particularly exciting to be taking this album with us and to be playing the new live versions of the tracks that come from it.” And as the sleeve notes say, “We all have times when we need to escape.” Here’s 42 minutes to do just that, and you can do it over and over again without fear of wearing it out.
Review by: Simon Holland
Five Hundred Miles
Upward Spiral / Brink
The Escape is out May 1st 2015 via SAE
Order it Now Via: The UFQ Shop
More Summer dates tba
01 May – The Greystones, Sheffield S11 7BS
02 May – Trinity Folk Festival, Guildford GU1 3UA
08 May – Hanger Farm Arts Centre, Southampton SO40 8FT
09 May – Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham NG31 6PZ
11 May – Chesham Folk Club, Chesham HP5 1AG
15 May – The Forge, Camden, London NW1 7NL
16 May – Maldon Town Hall, Maldon CM9 4PZ
17 May – Dart Music Festival, Dartmouth
21 May – Alexander’s, Chester CH1 2JW
23 May – Fishguard Folk Festival, Fishguard SA65 9AD
29 May – Village Hall, Bowerchalke, Wiltshire
30 May – Village Hall, Kington Langley, Wiltshire SN15 5NJ
02 Jun – Swaledale Festival, Hawes DL8 3RN
05 Jun – Gate To Southwell Festival, Nottinghamshire, NG25 0PT
06 Jun – Gate To Southwell Festival, Nottinghamshire, NG25 0PT
07 Jun – Wirral Folk Festival, Ellesmere Port CH65 6QF
18 Jul – Sesiwn Fawr Dolgellau Festival, Dolgellau, North Wales
23 Jul – Loon Plage, France
19 Aug – Festival, Belgium
22 Aug – Folk East Festival, Glemham Hall, Suffolk