Stick in the Wheel – Follow Them True
Self Released – 26 January 2018
Stick in the Wheel’s debut album, 2015’s From Here stuck a firework up the cat’s end of folk and, in the process, pissed off a few in the ‘established tradition’. A concert promoter friend of mine had an argument with one folk artist (a name you will recognise but will remain nameless) who couldn’t countenance anyone actually listening to Stick in the Wheel, let alone liking them.
A lot of the perception of them as iconoclasts did not come from the band themselves, but from over-thinking music press and promoters casting Stick in the Wheel as a bunch of upstart punks with more attitude than skill, more ambition than reverence, but in interviews, the band was more likely to profess as much love for the Watersons and Planxty as grime and electronica.
For their second release, Stick In The Wheel curated From Here: English Folk Field Recordings, which saw them travelling the UK making field recordings of the great and good of the current and established folk scene: Lisa Knapp and Spiro alongside Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick.
And this, their second album establishes the band as more than a shock to the system, but a band with a singular vision. It’s not that they don’t respect folk and the music of these isles, they’re just determined to do it their way.
But Follow Them True (as the title suggests), is rather a continuation of their uncompromising first release. While some of the visceral attack of songs like Bows and Bedlam from their debut is softened here, it feels like a natural progression. That said, the opening track, Over Again, has a relentless power that grabs you by the throat – it’s a thrill to hear Ian Carter’s looping guitar and Nicola Kearey’s vocals build to the thrilling chorus. Welcome back Stick in the Wheel.
As if to make a different point, Weaving Song sounds like it’s taken from a terrifying re-imagining of Bagpuss where austerity and Brexit loom over the worker mice and their dilapidated mouse organ. Kearey’s vocals are allowed more nuance than on the debut and her East London tones are by turns innocent, as on Weaving Song, and world-weary and ancient-sounding on the likes of the a cappella Unquiet Grave.
A pervading air of menace characterises the album and not in the typical way that folk singers claim to be ‘happy, nice people who just happen to sing about death and brutality’, there is a commitment to the songs here from Stick in the Wheel. It’s a frightening, dark world they draw you into, but the band are not lying in the gutter pointing at the stars, they’re face down, rubbing your nose in it…
In this way, the band reminds me of the early 70s folk rock band Mr. Fox, with their sparse arrangements, impassioned and determinedly unpretty vocals. Stick in the Wheel channelling the concerns of working-class London underdogs much as Mr. Fox flew the flag for forgotten Yorkshire four decades ago.
The material is largely traditional and there are no modern parables like Me N Becky from the debut, but the band’s resolute approach makes it feel like an album for 2018 rather than 1820, although the stench of smog and mother’s ruin still seep into your bones.
This second release also expands the band’s sonic toolbox – Kearey’s vocals treated with Auto-Tune on Follow Them True, with the same unexpectedly startling results as Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner achieved on 2016’s FLOTUS. And the closing track, As I Roved Out, draws deeper into the world of muddy electronica, while still sounding distinctly Stick in the Wheel.
On other tracks, the arrangements are more straightforward. In Poor Old Horse, Kearey leads a rough-as-you-like shanty choir. The effect of the mob chorus brings out the brutality of a song about the recycling of a workhorse stripped of its hair, tissue and bones to be put to further use, like a flesh-and-blood east-end John Barleycorn.
While Kearey’s vocals still define Stick in the Wheel’s sound, the other musicians contribute hugely and are given a brilliant showcase on the instrumental Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This mediaeval dance tune sounds like it has been beamed in from long-lost folk rock classic from 1972 – brilliantly but deliberately unfussily played.
Credit must also go to Simon Foote’s restrained percussion which subtly drives the album and gives songs like White Copper Alley and Roving Blade their wallop. Ellie Wilson also shines throughout, particularly her creepy fiddle backing on 100,000 Years. While Fran Foote’s harmonies expertly weave alongside Kearey’s, and her recorder leaps and trills to add bounce to the aforementioned horn dance.
It’s customary for lazy reviewers at this time to proclaim ‘album of the year – already’ and I’m not quite lazy enough to do that to Follow Them True. Because this is undoubtedly a brilliant album and will gain great acclaim, but it’s more than just an album for 2018, this is something to treasure for many years to come.
Pre-order Follow Them True here
Stick in the Wheel dates:
20 Jan 2018 Celtic Connections: Oran Mar, Glasgow
2 Feb 2018 Roots Club, Doncaster
3 Feb 2018 Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
8 Feb 2018 ALBUM LAUNCH Borderline, London
9 Feb 2018 The Anvil, Basingstoke
2 Mar 2018 House Concert, Edinburgh (email for info)
3 Mar 2018 Greystones, Sheffield
4 Mar 2018 Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
10 Mar 2018 The Met, Bury
11 Mar 2018 Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax
24 Mar 2018 Wharf Room, Widcombe, Bath
29 Mar 2018 Colchester Arts Centre, Essex
6 Apr 2018 St Ediths Hall, Sevenoaks, Kent
7 Apr 2018 West End Centre, Aldershot