Both the artists’ name and this album title appeared more than sufficiently intriguing for me to take a chance on this release, a decision which I’ve not for a moment regretted. Indeed, I was singularly taken at this, my first encounter with the duo Hodmadoddery which comprises Tony Carter and Steve Henwood, vocalists and guitarists of much note, great compatibility and an incredibly intense togetherness yet possessing distinctive and contrasting individual playing styles. I was also somewhat taken aback – nay, embarrassed – to discover that Hodmadoddery, far from being a rather obscure new outfit with a tongue-twister of a name, is instead a well-regarded act that, I learn from their website, has been in existence for close on 30 years, has been touring in Italy since the 90s at several of that country’s leading street music festivals and have often been the traditional opening act on The Bandstand at Glastonbury Festival (catch them on the Bandstand and Avalon Stage this year).
The history is that Tony and Steve first came together in around 1986 in Bath, and (Italy aside) that general locality has been their principal stamping-ground ever since, with occasional forays into the wider south-west of this fair land. Which probably explains why their distinctive and fascinatingly intricate music was entirely unfamiliar to me (hey, ain’t it something when it’s still possible to make new discoveries!…). When I say unfamiliar, well I mean that I’d not come across Hodmadoddery before – and yet I should have latched onto them sooner if I’d been in the right place, for their music is imbued with a sensibility which embraces not only a performance ethic and method that’s unbelievably telepathic but also a quirky and enterprising, and impeccably tasty, choice of material. Checking out their complete discography of five CDs and at least five cassettes (including some of self-confessedly dubious quality!) reveals a certain penchant for covers of traditional songs from the Celtic countries and rural England, but cannily complemented by an informed choice of contemporary originals and some of their own compositions in that vein. Agreed, a glance at the tracklists will also reveal a certain amount of duplication of material over the various releases, but their latest release Hodmadod Meets Gogmagog does in all fairness consist largely of new material (only the duo’s own composition Niniane has previously appeared on disc, in two guises – a live recording from 2007 celebrating their 21st anniversary, and a 1997 cassette).
The album kicks off with its lone traditional item – an animated, fairly sprightly take on Willie O’ Winsbury whose rippling, dancing gait might at first take a bit of getting used to but whose confident delivery and sensibly alternating-voiced approach paves the way for (while at the same time, at least in terms of vocal, separation as opposed to harmony, sits aside from) the delights of the remainder of the disc’s nine selections. The acoustic guitar interplay is miraculous, with internal subtlety and integration quite reminiscent of some of that on the Incredible String Band’s 5000 Spirits album. By dint of the inclusion of Robin Williamson’s charming post-ISB opus By Weary Well (and Mike Heron’s Painting Box, listed in their earlier discography referred to above), Tony and Steve are obviously deep-seated ISB fans. They’re equally obviously well attuned to the zeitgeist of that classic early-70s psych-folk era. Examples of this include songs from Roy Harper (Tom Tiddler’s Ground) and acoustic Led-Zepp (an epic wigout of The Battle Of Evermore that forms this disc’s finale). There’s also a rare cover of a later-period song by Peter Hammill: A Better Time (from 1996 album X My Heart), whose original experimental a cappella layerings are here replicated in overlapping vocals and unison chorus and thrown into relief by the duo’s delicate guitar parts. (And of course, the Gogmagog duality itself might be seen as an oblique nod to Hammill’s In Camera).
The disc’s curveball fun moment comes with its a cappella duet treatment of the late, much lamented Ivor Cutler’s Go And Sit Upon The Grass that makes it into something like a cross between a round and a madrigal. Elsewhere, I might argue that the Hodmadoddery take on Across The Universe is a mite fussy and doesn’t quite convey the swooning majesty of the Beatles original, even the unadorned pre-Spector version; while their gull-bedecked Shoals Of Herring possibly loses something in terms of rugged potency.
As virtually throughout Hodmadoddery’s long career, the guys have enjoyed the patronage of Ed Boyd (Lúnasa, Flook, Cara Dillon Band, Scoville Units, Red Ciel), reaping the benefit of his experience as producer and engineer while tacitly acknowledging his inspiration as a crack guitarist sans-pareil. So of course the record sounds good, with a faithful blend, believable balance and excellent part-definition. In addition to the recording sessions incorporating very occasional contributions from guests John Joe Kelly (bodhrán), Rachel Cross (fiddle), and Leon Hunt and the above-mentioned Ed Boyd, there’s also been a little studio overdubbing and general messing about in this instance. But in truth the base-recordings used for this new release actually date back to as long ago as 2014 (at that time the duo’s fans were able to obtain a pre-release CDR version of the album). Perhaps a touch appropriately in the context of the album’s comparatively sluggish emergence, then, we discover that one derivation of the word Hodmadoddery is as old-English for “snail”… But it’s been worth the wait; and I’m finding myself wishing I’d caught onto Hodmadoddery sooner too – I’ve two decades of catching up to do.
Order via Bandcamp here: hodmadoddery.bandcamp.com