The Young’uns – Strangers
Self-Released – 29 September 2017
The north-east of England boasts an enviably rich seam of fine folk musicians, past and present. Artists as diverse as the late Vin Garbutt, Alex Glasgow and The Unthanks have all found universal acclaim with songs that are steeped in particular local detail. Perhaps the one thing that links them is their ability to be both intensely personal and unabashedly political, often in the same stroke, a quality that reflects the area’s rich working-class industrial heritage, its bleak natural beauty and the hardships and joys that those things bring.
Teessiders The Young’uns are the latest in a long line of hugely talented singers and musicians to bring the singular, distinctive sound of the region to a wider audience. The trio – singer-songwriter Sean Cooney and singers Michael Hughes and David Eagle – have been around for a while now. Strangers is their fourth album, and they have been a popular feature on the folk circuit for a decade, but in the last two or three years their appeal has deservedly blossomed, thanks to rave reviews in the national press and two consecutive ‘Best Group’ titles in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (they are in rarified company – only Lau, Bellowhead, and Danu have won that particular accolade more than once).
Strangers, begins with a brisk, rousing version of Maggie Holland’s A Place Called England. It is the album’s only cover, and a very well-chosen one it is too, acting as a kind mini-manifesto or statement of intent. It provides a picture of a country whose recent past has been plagued by the excesses of big business, bad politicians and the wrong kind of patriotism, but is nonetheless full of hope and passion. It works as a kind of background, and the songs that follow – all penned by Cooney – fill in the details and populate the land with a vibrant cast of characters.
The first of these characters – the star of Ghafoor’s Bus – is Ghafoor Hussain, a very English kind of hero who drove a bus-load of provisions from his Stockton home to the Dunkirk refugee camp in 2015, serving up food and ten thousand cups of tea a day to beleaguered migrants. His story is told with a jaunty positivity, the vocal trio ably assisted by the choral talents of the Aldeburgh Young Musicians.
Then there is the heartbreaking Be The Man, a song that tells the tale of Matthew Ogston, whose partner Nazeem Mahmood took his own life after his family refused to accept his sexuality. The story is told from Ogston’s point of view, and despite its devastating sadness is full of hope and positivity. This is where folk music can still be a force for good in a cultural sense as well as a personal one – it can go beyond the assumed objectivity of newspaper reports, into a realm where individuals – and their personal causes – really matter. Be The Man is the first song on the album to incorporate instruments other than the human voice – as well as subtle piano and guitar from Eagle and Hughes respectively there is a swoon of cello courtesy of Bellowhead’s Rachael McShane while Chumbawamba’s Jude Abbott provides mournful flugelhorn. But it is the sincerity of Cooney’s singing and the understated but incredibly moving quality of his lyrics that give the song its real power.
Many of the tracks on Strangers have the feel of broadside ballads updated for the disturbing, sad and hopeful world of twenty-first-century news. Using this technique, Cooney shows us that folk music can bring new perspectives on stories that might otherwise be passed by or quickly forgotten. One such story is told in Carriage 12, which describes how a group of travellers thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015. Cooney’s skill here is in how his lyrics humanise the situation. Names are named; heroes are given their due. Small details – like how one of the passengers used his necktie to bind the attacker’s hands – add both realism and emotional depth. And of course there is the masterful vocal delivery: the three-part harmonising has the ability to be both exhilarating and forlorn, often at the same time.
As well as documenting contemporary events, the Young’uns also look to history for inspiration. Cable Street tells the story of Teessider Johnny Longstaff, who as a teenager stood up to Oswald Mosley’s fascists with a hundred thousand Londoners. Where such historical examples are used they serve to remind us all to be thankful for the bravery of people like Longstaff, and also as a warning that we should not repeat the mistakes of the past. With this in mind it can be no coincidence that Cable Street is directly followed by Dark Water, another tale of individual bravery, but also an impassioned attack on the way political selfishness can drive individuals to the most desperate acts – in this case swimming a dangerous stretch of sea to escape from political upheaval. Musically, it is perhaps the most atmospheric song on the album: sombre piano is augmented by strings and Mary Ann Kennedy’s harp as the Syrian protagonist and his companion enter a kind of dream state, swimming on their backs under the stars. It is a stirring and stunning moment.
A feature of folk music, and particularly that of the north-east of England, is its ability to tackle serious subjects with humour. The Young’uns are no different. On Bob Cooney’s Miracle – a story of how a Scottish anti-fascist in the Spanish civil war fed fifty-seven men with one loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef – they delight in dialect words and vernacular wit. Comparisons with The Watersons – perhaps the greatest of all vocal folk groups – spring to mind here. But they can also do a fine trade in a more elevated, poetic form of writing, as on Lapwings, where the style bears comparison with the great chroniclers of the First World War.
These Hands is another moving and finely detailed character study, and a paean to the power of positivity and hope. This time the subject is Sybil Phoenix, the community worker and activist who, in 1973, became the first black woman to be awarded the MBE. Her story is told against the backdrop of Hughes’s sprightly guitar, while the lyrics extol her strength and courage in what was an incredibly difficult time for black people in the UK.
And that strength and courage is what Strangers is all about. Despite the hardships it describes, there is barely a moment on this album that doesn’t hum with positivity. The Young’uns have perfected a sound that is as unique as it is uplifting, and it would be no surprise if their already burgeoning popularity were to rise to even greater heights.
PRE-ORDER STRANGERS – http://smarturl.it/ox0wmn
The Young’uns Strangers Album Tour
4 LANCASTER Dukes Theatre
5 SHEFFIELD City Hall (Memorial Hall)
6 GLASGOW Oran Mor
7 SHREWSBURY Theatre Severn
8 OXFORD The North Wall Arts Centre
9 COLCHESTER Arts Centre
10 BURY ST EDMUNDS Apex
11 BRISTOL Colston Hall Lantern
12 LONDON Union Chapel
13 SHOREHAM-BY-SEA Ropetackle Arts Centre
14 LINCOLN Drill Hall
15 NOTTINGHAM Glee Club
17 BRECON Theatr Brechyneiog
18 SOUTHPORT Atkinson
19 LEEDS City Varieties
20 MANCHESTER Home – Folk Festival
21 BIRMINGHAM Mac
22 CANTERBURY Cathedral Lodge
24 DUBLIN The Sugar Club
27 GATESHEAD Sage 1
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas