English folk music, for all its perceived genre tropes, is endlessly rich and distinctive. This distinctiveness is due in no small part to social factors, in particular, the symbiotic but not always easy relationship between human beings, the music they create and the land they work. Place is key. In the past, it was possible for one tiny patch of land and its inhabitants to evolve in ways that were both distinct from and linked to its neighbours. There was a balance between insularity and sociability that enabled cross-pollination of ideas without the loss of local flavour. The instant communication available since the twentieth century has all but destroyed this slow growth. In the world of music, many things have improved, many exciting new strides have been taken, but some things have been lost.
On their fifth album, The Memory Band – Stephen Cracknell and a revolving door of collaborators – seek to redress this balance and claw back some of the losses. The Fair Field sets its stall out straight away: the first track, The Bold Grenadier, is introduced by folklorist Peter Kennedy’s 1954 field recording of Vashti Vincent, a Dorset woman, who describes how her father bought a certain song from a ballad seller at a country fair. But any thought that this album might be one to wallow in sticky traditionalism is cast aside by the opening bars of the song. The Bold Grenadier is recognisably a folk tune, but the melody is the only real giveaway. It is a beautiful piano piece, as if Satie or Yann Tiersen had been uprooted and dropped off in the chalk downland of southern England.
Much of the album takes inspiration from the ancient landscapes of Wiltshire and Dorset, and despite being the most modern-sounding piece here, Children Of The Stones is no exception (the song takes its title from the 1970s television series inspired by the Avebury stone circle). Cracknell takes a simple vocal phrase – ‘there are moons and stars above you’ – and builds it into something that resembles a folkier Beta Band.
Against Our Laws Contrary takes the melody of an old poaching song and embellishes it with found sounds and half-lost fragments of voice, a bass drone and pretty piano. No lyrics are needed – the melancholy is palpable and piercing.
On Our Side is as close as they get to a simple folk-pop ditty, while The Mason And The Lark again begins with a simple piano figure, which alternates with a more propulsive string section, before the key to the tune (and perhaps the album) emerges: a recording of poet Basil Bunting reciting from the second stanza of his masterpiece Briggflatts:
A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
till the stone spells a name
a man abolished.
It is an important and timely reference: Bunting was a fierce modernist whose poetry was nevertheless rooted in and indebted to his native rural Northumberland, and he remains a criminally under-read genius. This particular excerpt is in some ways a perfect summation of The Memory Band’s philosophy, a neat encapsulation of man’s relationship with land and with song.
By The Truth Of My Right Hand is an elegiac instrumental take on the tune better known as Willie O’ Winsbury, and is introduced by a recording of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the Middle English sounding otherworldly, perhaps even futuristic, when accompanied by liberal and lavish scoops of double bass.
Double bass again dominates the short, jazzy Up The Common, while Starlight is another instrumental in which piano and guitar play off each other. Closing track A Postcard For Toppy And Lou has a chamber-pop feel to it, like a Divine Comedy or Belle and Sebastian instrumental, but more bucolic, sited in a time and place that is at once mysterious and specific.
It’s tempting to situate albums like A Fair Field under the broad ‘hauntology’ banner, but this is no dry exercise in pastoral retro-futurism. Rather it is a varied, heartfelt set of tunes that also happens to be a valid and enlightening social document.
A Fair Field is Out Now via Static Caravan