Folk music is democratic music. The clue, as they say, is in the name. By and large it is anti-virtuosic, communal, and often politically engaged. From the days of broadside ballads folk singers have held up a mirror to their world while simultaneously attempting to change it for the better. For this reason it is wrong to think of folk music as a reliquary for quaint ideas and antique musical styles. Relevance is crucial to any art form that strives to be in any way political. Musical expression that does not adapt to its time will not survive outside of the faintly embarrassing nostalgia circuit.
But folk music is far from the only genre to use song for the purposes of political or social observation. There is of course the iconoclastic energy of punk and the rebelliousness of skiffle. What all of these genres share, along with their often radical sensibilities, is the notion that music in itself can be democratic, that with a DIY approach practically anyone can learn a couple of chords and get themselves heard. London group Stick In The Wheel have somehow managed to combine all of these influences – skiffle, punk, and folk – to create From Here, a timely and immensely rewarding debut album.
Brisk opener Champion is a song, originally by Ewan MacColl, that cleverly updates the idea of an old, geographically specific traveller’s song by introducing the post-industrial world of the long haul lorry driver. The listener is made immediately aware that traditional music can be used to tackle subjects that are far from traditional. It also gives a good taster of what is perhaps Stick In The Wheel’s most powerful weapon – the raw, unapologetically East London voice of singer Nicola Kearey. This is where the punk influence comes in – Kearey communicates with an attitude that can be sneery and spitty whilst also being fragile. Indeed on songs like Me n Becky – a cautionary tale of looting in the wake of the London riots, observed from a prison cell – sounds more like the lo-fi punk of the Television Personalities than any folk band.
If there is a theme running through the record it is justice (and injustice). My Barra is the tale of a London conman told with unusual tenderness. Jail Song looks at life as an inmate with a sardonic eye while Common Ground looks at injustice on a social scale. It is one of the strongest of the group’s own compositions. Over Ian Carter’s simple circular acoustic guitar pattern Kearey sings of the importance of fighting for values in the face of an unfair and probably corrupt system. It could easily be a song about the Enclosure Acts of the seventeenth century, but it is no less current for all that, Kearey urging future generations not to repeat (or re-repeat) the mistakes of the past. Hasp is perhaps the most powerful of all: a slow-burning meditation on the erosion of freedom in society, its use of extended metaphor is confident and accomplished.
As well as their own excellent songs, Stick In The Wheel have a knack for breathing fresh life into well-worn traditional material. Their reading of Seven Gypsies doesn’t really do much to alter the content, but the delivery somehow makes it sound new – it’s now only a small imaginative leap to get from the tale of an unfulfilled wife running off with travellers to a modern tabloid story of infidelity. The same goes for wonderfully rough, breakneck Bedlam. On the surface it resembles many of the older versions, but in the context of the album it could easily be interpreted as a comment on the glorification of mental illness and the cult of the mad.
Perhaps it is due to Kearey’s working class accent or perhaps it is the deceptive simplicity of the musicianship, but the traditional songs become more real, more pertinent, than in other versions. There are dozens of recordings of The Blacksmith out there but few can match the intimacy or the despair that Kearey and her bandmates bring to the song. The sheer helplessness conveyed by the vocal performance on Hard Times once again brings up the notion of social injustice and ensures the song sounds more relevant now than ever before. A more damning indictment of austerity-era politics would be hard to find.
And then there is the urgent, fiddle-driven supernatural murder ballad Bows Of London. The dextrous playing is proof that there is more to this band than the DIY folk-skiffle sound they cultivate so well. To pull that kind of sound off is actually not as easy as it appears, and these guys have clearly paid their dues musically. This is further proved by From Here’s final three songs, which are so different from the rest of the album that you might at first question their presence. Here the band dip into the rich pagan history of Britain, and the music reflects the shift to weirder themes, becoming wild and atmospheric. Things get less clear-cut; the edges that defined previous songs are worn away. These songs sound old and mystical – songs that could have been used in ancient rites. By Of River references Alan Moore’s metafictive opus Voice Of The Fire, a novel that spans six thousand years. Who Knows utilises a droning background against which tingling chords and Kearey’s powerful voice, now constantly on the point of cracking, tell a tale of displacement and disharmony.
The final song on the album is a reprise of By Of River. It is the biggest departure of all – a monochrome landscape of glitchy studio trickery and a series of drones that sound like the onrush of a tide. It is bracing and haunting, and it also shows that, not content with reinvigorating folk music, Stick In The Wheel are able to reinvent themselves over the course of a single remarkable album. This closing trio is entirely different from what went before, but it is a testament to the considerable and still-growing talent of this band that it doesn’t diminish the quality in any way. There isn’t a weak moment on From Here. This is high-energy, politically switched-on folk music and it is one of the most vital recent additions to the English musical tradition.
Review by: Thomas Blake
14 Oct 2015 The Exchange, Bristol
15 Oct 2015 The Citadel, St Helens, Merseyside
16 Oct 2015 Homegrown Festival/English Folk Expo, Bury
31 Oct 2015 David’s (Instore), Letchworth
12 Nov 2015 Islington Folk Club, London
21 Nov 2015 What’s Cookin, Leytonstone, London
4 Dec 2015 Kings Place, London
5 Dec 2015 Tooting Folk Club, The Selkirk, London
6 Dec 2015 The Copper Family, The Hadleigh and Thundersley Cricket Club, Essex
6 Jan 2016 What’s Cookin, Leytonstone, London
18 Jan 2016 Green Note, London
23 Jan 2016 TBC
26 Jan 2016 Romford Folk Club, Romford, Essex
19 Feb 2016 St Edith Folk Club, Sevenoaks, Kent
19 Mar 2016 Royal Traditions, Sheffield