To understand the immense appeal of The Furrow Collective – the quartet comprising Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton and Alasdair Roberts – it’s worth taking a look at the video for Wild Hog In The Woods, the lead track from Wild Hog. Beautifully directed by animator Chris Cornwell, it is hallucinatory, funny and sad. It’s Dr Seuss-on-peyote narrative features dismembered knights, boat-carving beavers and an incongruous mouthless ghoul with a tape recorder. The overall feel is Southern Gothic meets Day of the Dead carnivalesque with a liberal smattering of British folklore and overtones of post-Kafka absurdity. It’s a thrilling mix, and an inclusive one, allowing contemporary images to subtly permeate the old-time nature of the tale. The song itself is a rollicking update of the mythological man-eating boar story often known as Old Bangum. This version is taken from an American retelling of what was originally a British song. Roberts takes the lead vocal and sings it with unabashed glee, while Portman’s banjo hints at the tune’s transatlantic heritage.
This wilful amalgamation of traditions and admittance of contemporary elements is one of the things that keep folk music fresh and relevant, and it is tangible throughout Wild Hog. Accomplished folklorists as well as extraordinary musicians, the quartet dig up some of the less well-known songs in the folk tradition and steep them in their own very distinctive sound – a formula that worked brilliantly on their 2014 debut At Our Next Meeting and is even more successful here. Farrell’s take on Dear Companion is taken from Appalachian dulcimer player Jean Ritchie‘s song book, and is backed up by moody electric guitar, al la Steeleye Span. Farrell’s lead vocal has a jazzy smokiness to it, and the song is both a deft modernisation and a fitting tribute to Ritchie, who died last year. The mood is continued by the Prince Heathen, a lengthy tale of unwanted courtship with supernatural overtones whose message is shockingly relevant to contemporary discourse about consent and sexual autonomy. It is a stunning song, made all the more harrowing by the clarity and lack of adornment in its delivery.
Barbara Allen is by far the most recognisable song here, but Portman’s tender arrangement and its unfamiliar ending give it new life, while Willie’s Fatal Visit, adapted by Farrell from a version by Martin Carthy and Ray Fisher, keeps up the pervasive preoccupation with death. Here the arrangement is startlingly modern, but retains a Celtic lilt. Portman’s Many’s The Night’s Rest could almost be a companion piece to Prince Heathen, with its determined message of female independence and individuality. It is a calm, minimal performance, with Roberts’ muffled backing vocals creating an interesting counterpoint, but it is not without its sadness.
Newton emerges as an accomplished and distinctive singer with the Gaelic Chur M’Athair Mise Dhan Taigh Charraideach (which translates as ‘My Father Sent Me To The House Of Sorrow). It is a haunting performance and is driven by a spare, deeply throbbing heartbeat of percussion.
The ballad Polly Vaughan has been recorded countless times, often with more levity than the subject-matter calls for (The Dillards did a fun, flippant version half a century ago). Carrell’s version is from Norfolk singer Harry Cox, and revives the timeless, mythological nature of the lyric with a sparse arrangement of drones and ghostly tinkles. Roberts’ Queen Eleanor’s Confession is a good example of how folk music can play fast and loose with history in order to arrive at a universal truth or moral (although in this case the moral is decidedly dubious). Musically, it resembles much of Roberts’ earlier work, particularly the album Too Long In This Condition. It is further proof that Roberts is one of the most singular singers and guitarists out there.
Another song with a moral is the Portman-led The Maiden Hind. One of the album’s most surprising choices, it comes not from the Hiberno-Anglo-American tradition but from Denmark. Portman’s delicate singing and 5/4 arrangement belies the tough lesson imparted by the lyrics. The final song is the prison ballad Beneath The Window Of My Cell, which Roberts sings with tenderness, and a doomy, bassy backdrop, eschewing traditional instrumentation in favour of a sound that is modern, minimal and incredibly atmospheric.
With Wild Hog, The Furrow Collective have surpassed their excellent debut with a set of songs that is mature, intelligent and experimental. Some credit should go to the supporting cast, of course: Alex Neilson does his usual excellent thing on drums, Sound Of Yell’s Stevie Jones is a formidable double bass player and Andy Bell‘s talents as a producer are again in evidence, tying the songs down to a coherent sound. But the quartet at the heart of this record, for all their differing styles, have hit upon something that has a rare sparkle to it. A deceptively simple, spell-bindingly beautiful record.
Wild Hog is Out Now via Hudson Records
We recently interviewed Andy Bell who produced Wild Hog and recently set up his new label Hudson Records. Read it here.