I’ve seen Seth Lakeman live a number of times; on stage, he produces enough energy to power the whole of Scotland for a decade. His latest offering, Ballad of The Broken Few, isn’t like that however. Not even a little bit, but I’m prepared to wager that there will be the usual singalongs galore we’ve grown to expect when it gets toured in November with the wonderful “Wildwood Kin”.
It’s not normal to talk so much about the backing singers but in this case, they are integral to the album. Two sisters and a cousin, they sing harmonies with voices blended in heaven. Seth Lakeman being a perceptive man and a fellow Devonian noticed them at a charity gig and signed them up for what is very much a joint venture. Oh, and just in case, he managed to secure the services of Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Laura Marling and Paul McCartney) to produce the album, winning ingredients all around.
With that in mind, the first sound you hear on the opening track Willow Tree is the girls’ voices blended with the drone of Seth’s fiddle. It’s a new sound to many and it’s one that pretty much sets the tone for the album. Fiddle, voices and a hypnotic drum arranged in an almost gospel like fashion. Even without the percussion, as on the second song Silence Reigns, it’s a winning combination. Lakeman’s singing is faultless and the harmonies melt your heart. The instrumental break is fiddle plus voice and that’s how ‘Wildwood Kin’ is used throughout, another instrument…an orchestra even.
The added depth of guitar and bass come to the fore on Meet me in the Twilight with Wildwood Kin turning in a Motownesque backing, one that could have been quite a rocky number and I suspect will be one of those singalong songs when Seth tours the album.
Stranger has that high-lonesome Appalachian feel, as do many of the songs, one that draws you in…hypnotised by the rhythm. The songs are easily recognisable as the work of Seth Lakeman, the singing is definitely Seth Lakeman but the album is very definitely a departure from his usual fare.
By the time we get to the title track Ballad of The Broken Few” there is some distorted guitar, gospel style singing and handclaps. Anyone not joining in with this has to be dead.
Anna Lee is a song with strong country blues roots, it was written by Laurelyn Dossett from the piedmont area of North Carolina and made famous by Levon Helm who performed it on his grammy winning Dirt Farmer album. Simple, evocative and brilliant. Innocent Child is another rhythmic masterpiece. It’s also full of interesting melodic patterns and chord changes and one of the darker sounding numbers on the album.
Whenever I’m Home is just sublime. A painting of the house the singer returns to from his travels. A droned fiddle and voice is more than enough to pour the emotion into a satisfying lyric.
The album winds down with Silver Threads, this time, the fiddle is plucked and the voices produce the colour. It really is wonderful. Both this song and the final Pulling Hard Against The Stream have instantly singable parts. I can see the festival crowds swaying along gently to the rhythms.
It took me a long time to get a handle on this record. This is Seth Lakeman but not as we know it. I had to go and listen to some of the old recordings to see if I was over-analysing but no. It’s adventurous, it’s different, it’s maybe a little risky but it is a success and in my humble opinion as good as anything he has recorded.
It took me two weeks to understand “Ballad of The Broken Few;” my wife loved it after two bars. Between them, Seth Lakeman, Wildwood Kin and Ethan Johns have produced a very special piece of work. Put the CD on, turn the volume up as high as the neighbours will allow and leave the room…the sound follows you around the house as if it had been recorded in the great hall of a Jacobean Manor House which, apparently, it was.
Ballad of The Broken Few is out now on Cooking Vinyl