Forgotten Kingdom is the fifth solo album by Jim Causley, the well-respected folk singer and accordion player from Devon; his first for Hands On Music, the label started by fellow Devonians Show of Hands. The album’s fifteen self-penned songs are inspired by the ancient British kingdom of Dumnonia and Jim’s own experience of growing up within this part of South West England. In the ten years since his debut album Fruits of the Earth, Jim has built an enviable reputation for his tireless work in keeping the traditional songs and music of the West Country before the public eye, and the high regard in which he is held is reflected in the list of top-notch guest musicians on Forgotten Kingdom.
The opening pair of songs, ‘Gabbro Bowl/The Peninsula Prayer’, gets the album off to a flying start, not least in terms of production values. The sound of Forgotten Kingdom is a long way from the sparse production of his previous album (2013’s Cyprus Well) and it’s a pleasure to hear Jim’s writing given such lush and full arrangements. The lyrics of ‘Gabbro Bowl’ were inspired by the discovery at Hembury hill fort of some of the earliest Neolithic pottery in southern Britain. The gabbroic clay used to make the pottery is only found in Cornwall and provides a connection with the area’s ancient trading links of which Jim is justifiably proud. The arrangement carries echoes of more recent (medieval) traditions and features contributions from Steve Tyler (hurdy-gurdy) and Katy Marchant (shawm, flageolet) as well as Steve Knightley on mandocello. The massed backing vocals of Chris Hoban, Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere (Ninebarrow) add depth to the sea shanty feel of the refrains, the whole leading seamlessly into ‘The Peninsula Prayer’ and features the combined voices of The Claque (Dave Lowry, Barry Lister, Tom Addison and Bill Crawford) and Steve Knightley and Phil Beer of Show of Hands.
‘Back in the Day’ is a fond if downbeat reminiscence of the halcyon days of childhood with Jim’s deep and mellow voice prominent in the mix, tempered nicely by Jon and Jay’s flowing harmonies. Hannah Martin‘s bittersweet fiddle lines weave around Jim’s syncopated accordion, underpinned by Miranda Sykes‘ bass and filled out with contributions from Phil Beer (laúd) and Phillip Henry (chaturangui). The album’s sequencing takes advantage of the more introspective mood with ‘Banks Of The Tale’; informed by traditional folk music, this sad tale of love gone bad receives an appropriately sparse arrangement of Jim’s vocals and James Dumbelton’s acoustic guitar.
Using the first verse of ‘The False Knight on the Road’ (Roud 20; Child 3) as a springboard for a tale about a chance meeting with a child he encounters on his travels, ‘The Road to Combebow’ focuses less on the riddle-solving morality tale of ‘The False Knight’ in favour of a more descriptive telling of the knight’s life and his adventures. It’s an effective device which fits well with the narrative style of much other traditional folk music and the arrangement makes a good match. The combination of the voices of Jim, Chris Hoban and Steve Knightley are given a suitably heroic, almost Celtic setting by the twin fiddles of Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll while Steve Tyler’s hurdy-gurdy and Katy Marchant’s English bagpipes demonstrate once again why the two instruments complement each other so well. It’s a quietly rip-roaring song, if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms, and one of the album’s highlights.
First recorded on Jim’s debut album (Fruits of the Earth, 2005), the reworking of ‘Rewind’ looks at how traditional song relates to the landscape of England:
“To me it all goes hand in hand.
The music and the land
Now who could fail to understand
Taken at an even more stately pace than the original, James Dumbelton’s acoustic guitar carries the basic song structure with Jim’s accordion joining midway through while Chris Hoban’s harmonies on the choruses make the perfect counterpoint to Jim’s melody in this gentle and spacious arrangement of an old favourite.
The tempo picks up for ‘Home’, its subtly caustic commentary on the gentrification of Jim’s home stomping ground making a worthy companion to the personal reminiscences of the preceding ‘Rewind’. The arrangement brings together two duos – Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll (fiddles), and Miranda Sykes (double bass) and Rex Preston (mandolin) – with Reese Wesson’s melodeon fitting well with Jim’s accordion, while Phillip Henry’s Dobro and Phil Beer’s guitar add to the giddy, country fair waltz atmosphere. It’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite songs on the album and would, dare I say, make a great single.
‘This Weekend’ is a downtempo retrospective look back down the years, a message from present-day Jim to his childhood self tinged with regret as much as it celebrates making it through to here and now. It’s a sparse but dreamy arrangement with just James Dumbelton’s acoustic guitar supporting Jim’s accordion but the wordless singalong refrain features some lovely vocals.
Commissioned in 2013 by Exeter’s Spacex Gallery as part of a project by artist Simon Pope, ‘Pride of the Moor’ celebrates the tin mining heritage of Dartmoor. Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll add some soaring fiddle flourishes while the combined voices of The Claque (Dave Lowry, Barry Lister, Tom Addison and Bill Crawford) and Jay LaBouchardiere and Jon Whitley add the feel of a traditional miners’ work song to an arrangement which suggests a deep respect for the area’s industrial heritage.
Written by Jim but first recorded by Jackie Oates on her 2007 album The Violet Hour, ‘Summer’s End’ brings the pair back together again. The lyric’s description of the end of an idyllic summer with only the storms and cold of winter ahead is matched with the protagonist’s regret at the passing of a relationship and the arrangement is equally poignant. Jackie’s fiddle is both delicate and beautiful while Lukas Drinkwater adds acoustic guitar, double bass and backing vocals with his usual restraint, supporting but never overshadowing Jim’s heartbroken vocals. By contrast, ‘The Man You Know’ is an altogether more raucous affair extolling the joys of being footloose and fancy free which also features the traditional ‘The Bishop of Chester’s Jig’, Nick and Becki’s fiddles dance around the melody with Seth Lakeman’s bouzouki and Mark Tucker’s percussion getting the party well and truly started.
Skimming through the sleeve notes when I first received the album, I misread the title of ‘Reigning Men’ and momentarily wondered if this was Jim’s bid for global fame and fortune. Thankfully, it’s not a cover of The Weather Girls’ 1982 pop classic; rather it’s a well-observed commentary on the historic abuses of power inflicted on various populaces by kings of yore. Featuring piano, organ and vocals by Kathryn Roberts (recorded by Sean Lakeman), it moves at a measured pace with some exquisite harmonies, particularly through the closing section and despite, or maybe because of, the absence of a passing ex-Spice Girl’s contribution, is another of the album’s highlights.
Hollantide (Hallowe’en), like many other celebrations held on the 31st October, is an opportune moment for looking back over the year before hunkering down against the oncoming winter. The mellow arrangement of ‘Goodnight Ballad’ would make a fine addition to any themed playlist accompanying the occasion, its retrospective lyrics offering quiet reassurance amid its unflinching realism about the season ahead with Phil Beer’s fiddle wrapping it all in a warm glow.
Featuring Mark Bazeley (melodeon) and Matt Norman (tenor and bass banjos, mandolin and fiddle), ‘Illogan Highway’ is a fine piece of English folk dance music, rooted in tradition but with a keen awareness of the present. Bolstered by some solid harmonies from Jay LaBouchardiere, Jon Whitley and Chris Hoban, it relates the tale of ‘an old maid’ reminiscing about her younger days of carousing and canoodling and generally regretting nothing – a fine example to all of us women of a certain age!
Recorded live in Crediton Congregational Church ‘The Pastoria’ features Jim at the piano, accompanied by the redoubtable duo of Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll on violins and viola. With a reference to waes haeil (‘wassail’) appearing in the first verse it bookends comfortably with ‘Goodnight Ballad’ and its lyric generally reminds us that, however we may arbitrarily divide up the year, time and the seasons flow past in an ancient continuity. The ambience of the venue is quite sublime, with a huge reverb which envelops the performance and foregrounds Jim’s winterworn voice to great effect.
The closing ‘Sea Sick’ brings us full circle with references to Jim’s spiritual homeland of Dumnonia in this sea shanty influenced song. Jim’s lyrics contain a good blend of humour and homesickness, and the backing track of ambient recordings of the lapping waves and crying seagulls provides the perfect accompaniment.
Steeped in the traditions of his beloved Dumnonia, Forgotten Kingdom presents both an ambitiously broad canvas and a tour de force display of Jim Causley’s range and depth. Showcasing his innate understanding of English folk with material that spans the spectrum of traditional and contemporary, personal and political, regional and national, it succeeds as a result of Jim’s commitment to his vision and his choice of contributors, confirming his status as one England’s finest folk singers, musicians and composers.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Forgotten Kingdom is released 19th February 2016 via Hands on Music