TRADarrr – Further Tales of Love, Death and Treachery
Hedge of Sound – 28 May 2017
If Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief marked the first, full, glorious flowering of English tradition based folk rock in 1969, the 48 years since have seen the genre suffer mixed fortunes. Fairport themselves, along with many lesser mortals, began to find greater inspiration in their own song writing rather than the English traditional canon. Others, whilst keeping the familiar folk rock instrumental mix, brought things full circle, tapping into the font of North American music that had, in part, been Fairport’s muse pre-Liege and Lief. By 2014, feeling there was still much to be explored in the marriage of the English tradition with 21st Century instrumentation and musical genres, P J Wright and Mark Stevens were stirred into action. One by one, friends were invited into the studio to record and by November the material that became the album Cautionary Tales had been assembled. Only then did the notion of a band to tour the material begin to take shape and, to quote Marion Fleetwood, “after a lot of badgering”, TRADarrr was born.
Fast forward to early 2017 and TRADarrr have assembled a second batch of 11 songs and an instrumental set to give us Further Tales of Love, Death and Treachery. It’s a product of musicians who now clearly identify themselves as a band. No guest cameos from the likes of Chris Leslie and Dave Pegg, of the nine musicians on the album, seven make up the TRADarrr that will perform at festivals and gigs over this summer and beyond. P J, Mark and Marion along with Gregg Cave and Guy Fletcher were all at the core of the first album. They were joined for gigs in 2015 by Gemma Shirley and, this year, by Tim Harries. The remaining two, Mark Jolley and Phil Bond, were part of the 2015 lineup, contribute to tracks on Further Tales, but have now moved on.
Further Tales of Love, Death and Treachery opens with Winter Winds. Not to be confused with the Mumford and Sons song, the lyrics are from a broadside ballad of undisclosed provenance whilst, in common with all the album’s tracks, there’s additional material and arrangement credited to specific band members, in this case, Gregg Cave and Mark Stevens. Gregg takes lead vocal with lyrics bemoaning the pains of loves that don’t last, he’s joined for one verse by Marion, their voices blending splendidly and giving us a hint of many more vocal pleasures to come. TRADarrr is well equipped with singers, both Gemma and Guy also take lead vocals and just about everyone contributes to backing vocals as needed. This opening track also gives a first taste of the many varied arrangements this talented collection of musicians can devise. Mind you, as album producer and with probably the widest ranging instrumental skill set, Mark Stevens deserves to be singled out. In addition to his regular seat behind the drum kit, which extends to bodhran and dumbek, he adds organ, keyboards with programming, cornet, acoustic guitar and autoharp. On Winter Winds, from the opening chords, the organ provides a swell of sound underpinning PJ’s electric guitar work, subsiding to give Gregg’s voice and acoustic guitar a clear run at the first verse. Returning behind the chorus, a pattern is set that repeats and builds throughout the song.
Mark’s mariachi-flavoured cornet was a surprisingly successful component of a couple of arrangements on TRADarrr’s first album and his cornet features on almost half of Further Tales’ tracks. We have to wait, though, until Rap Her to Bank, the fourth track, and then there’s no hint of mariachi in the sound. A song from the coal mining areas of N.E. England, it starts with solo cornet evoking the silver bands that were such a feature of pit village life. Joined by organ, PJ’s electric guitar and eventually pedal steel, the combination gives a suitably soulful backing to the song. Originally recounting an old miner’s last shift before retirement, now, with an extra final verse, written by Pete Scrowther, it’s also a eulogy for UK coal mining and, in Pete’s words, communities brought to their knees by politicians’ malice.
With Marion, Gemma and Guy all contributing fiddle and Marion also bringing in viola and cello, TRADarr has the capacity to get positively symphonic with their string arrangements. They’ve largely resisted the temptation after all this is folk rock, though on Dream Not of Love do we find passages with strings prominent behind the vocals. This is, however, Marion with her one-woman string section, multi-tracking fiddle, viola and cello. The lyrics, from the early 19th Century Northamptonshire farm labourer turned poet John Clare, are handled mainly by Marion with the soft, silky voice she does so well. Gregg takes the middle verse and they join for the closing sequence, two very different voices that merge brilliantly, it’s easy to see why they duo together as Fleetwood Cave.
Marion and Gemma duet on Lowlands of Holland in a setting that has its roots in Martin Carthy’s take on the song. The track opens, however, with the melody from The Water is Wide, somewhat adapted for Mark’s cornet, and played over a wash of sound from the programmed keyboards. Voices take over from the cornet, first Marion, joined by Gemma after the first verse, and we’re treated to a duet that raises goosebumps of pleasure. The full set of lead vocals is completed on the next track by Guy taking on The Golden Vanity, given a middle section from one of his fiddle and mandolin tunes, Brace and Auger.
The three fiddlers finally get to play together accompanying Gemma’s vocal on The Drowned Lover, along with Gregg and PJ on electric guitars. Here, and elsewhere, PJ also brings in a baritone guitar, adding a welcome and less familiar component to the mix. It makes you wonder what might have happened had Duane Eddy discovered folk rock.
With Further Tales, TRADarrr have generously delivered on the promise shown by their debut album. These new tales are the product of a band bursting with ideas. Sure, there are passages that are the clear descendants of classic 1970s folk rock and they are worthy bearers of the family name. But, far more, this is an album focussed on exploring variations in instrumentation and vocal arrangements, finding different ways to reinvigorate traditional songs and tunes. There are plenty more elements to the arrangements beyond those I’ve highlighted, and you’ll have great fun discovering them for yourselves. It truly is an album that gives more and more each time you listen.
Out on 28 May.