The Brothers Briggs: The Brothers Briggs
All Made Up Records – 2017
Take three brothers with a folk music background (i.e., where singing folk songs together “on long car journeys or round the kitchen table” is part of their family tradition)… The Briggs brothers are scattered across the UK: singer/guitarist/keyboardist Tom is based in Manchester, while Edward’s a musician, instrument-maker and sound artist based in Brighton and Alex is a singer and teacher based in Birmingham. The three recently had the great idea of making an album together as a 70th birthday present for their father Martyn, a singer who’d appeared on a couple of Topic albums in the ’70s with the Singing Tradition group and Roy Palmer (but then Dad ended up providing the sleeve notes for the brothers’ CD!).
Intriguingly, the Brothers’ album presents their own strange, deliciously twisted takes on a collection of nine traditional folk songs that they’ve been singing for as far back as they can remember. By strange and twisted, they mean weird and/or unexpected musical directions, enterprisingly taking what they term an impressionistic approach that reflects their own personal relationship with the songs rather than any deliberate attempt to recreate the songs in a traditional style. It helps that each of the brothers possesses a distinctive and individual vocal character, with Edward and Tom taking the lead on three songs apiece and Alex two, whereas Martyn himself is recruited to sing The Maid On The Shore; the brothers’ collective vocal identity is subsequently reinforced on The Painful Plough.
The brothers’ interpretations score heavily on the dark and scary side, for they choose to bring out the elements that scared them as kids. It’s easy to feel spooked when encountering the songs for the first time in the brothers’ unique renditions. The narrative of Bitter Withy, for instance, is distilled into barely two minutes of high drama and yet loses nothing in the telling. The impact of the upfront-sung melody is such that the narrative’s dramatic tension is heightened both by the eerie supporting vocal harmonies and by the creative instrumental backdrop that arises out of a single pounding drumbeat and progresses through chattering, clattering tribal drumming (Zabadak meets Adam Ant?) to full-blown trumpets-and-timps scoring (recalling Janáček’s Sinfonietta, perhaps?).
An insistent minor-key guitar-and-drum ostinato ushers in The Hunter (aka Among The Leaves So Green-O), normally a cheery singalong call-and-response but here feeling decidedly ominous as the “hoedown” of the chase quickens and the keeper’s somewhat bawdy tale hastens to its merciful conclusion. Delicate reverberant plucked strings lead us into the decidedly odd, wispy nursery-rhyme-fantasy-ballad Sandy Daw, which Alex and Tom got from their Scottish grandmother; its hushed, ethereal and airy vocals recall Pink Floyd, overlaid on a psychedelic, spacey soundscape that takes us into both Floyd and Dead territories. Maid On The Shore is sinister and quite disturbing; it sets Martyn’s almost conversational delivery of the text against a swooning, discordant harmonium drone, with a curious “sleep hiatus” midway through the tale.
The Painful Plough is a deliberate homage to Martyn’s recording of the song with Singing Tradition in that it features the three brothers using virtually the same vocal arrangement (which here sounds almost Copper-like, I thought). It parallels Bitter Withy in its ingenious use of syncopated clattery percussion, which carries the song through its verses and on to a pounding fife-and-drum conclusion.
Barbary Allen, at 4½ minutes the longest track here, starts out traditionally enough, with expressive, “enjoyably melancholy” vocal backed by guitar, but becomes weirder with the incorporation into the texture of imaginative slide guitar effects which fall away as the lovers’ burial is undertaken in time-stopping a cappella. The animated, grimly jolly ritual of Soul Cake receives a suitably threatening Halloween’ish reading with an edgy, jittery backing that takes skeletal marimba and distorted Beefheart/garage guitar riffing into the realm of primal, wiry proto-punk. The final track, When Fortune Turns The Wheel, is a gently heartfelt rendition, tenderly and beautifully done to a rippling guitar and supportive keyboard chordings that both mirror and accentuate the ebb-and-flow tidal optimism of the text. The only song where I feel the brothers’ theatrical, impressionistic treatment doesn’t sit quite right is Reynardine, where some recurring background wolverine noises-off distract and give their otherwise nicely creepy rendition an overly artificial aura.
Here the Brothers Briggs have produced an offering that in terms of longevity and musical and cultural interest, goes beyond that of an “occasional” one-off birthday gift. At barely 28 minutes, though, it scarcely gets the chance to whet one’s appetite before it’s whisked away from the player. We need more of this kind of adventurous and keenly understanding music-making.
Order it here: www.allmadeuprecords.co.uk.