Joshua Burnell – Songs From The Seasons
4 May 2018 – Misted Valley Records
Joshua Burnell spent 2017 releasing a new adaptation of a traditional song each week, charting the progression of the seasons through the course of the year. From the fifty-two finished pieces recorded with the help of more than twenty musicians he has hand-picked fourteen tracks to compile a follow-up to his highly-rated 2016 debut Into The Green, and the result is a collection of assured, dynamic takes on a wide range of folk songs.
Many traditional songs contain a layer of misogyny that is problematic to say the least. There are ways of dealing with it, or not dealing with it. At one end of the scale, you can ignore it completely, present the song as it is, with all the nasty bits left in, and trust the listener to separate artistic intent from moral intent. Or you can go the other way completely, confront the problem and rewrite the song. There are valid arguments for both approaches but when the song is as immoral as Two Magicians (basically a rape ballad. Supernatural, shapeshifting rape, but rape nonetheless) then a rewrite that gives a voice to the song’s female protagonist is both welcome and refreshing. Burnell achieves this by turning the song on its head a third of the way through – the hunter becomes the hunted, the lady’s magic proves more powerful than that of the ‘lusty smith’ and what seems like centuries of inequality is finally tilted back in the right direction. Burnell has a great ear for the cadences of folk song – the transition between the traditional and original elements is practically seamless. Musically too it is triumphant, all bounding folk-rock drums, delicate mandolin and piercing Hammond organ stabs: Steeleye Span meets Brian Auger.
Tam Lin is a far cry from the most well-known versions of the song: a kinetic, spinning top instrumental with Sarah Loughran’s fiddle taking centre stage alongside Burnell’s powerful drumming, before a cosmic guitar solo courtesy of Nathan Greaves sends the whole thing in an entirely different direction. It is a short but thrilling ride. Another instrumental, Behind the Haystack (one of the Summer tracks), is more restrained but no less accomplished, with Burnell’s whistle and bouzouki playing off against a high, flighty fiddle, this time played by Rachel Wilson.
High Germany sees Burnell adopt a more traditional style, though the drums and electric guitars are never far away and Frances Sladen’s backing vocals lend an added emotional hit to a song of deep longing. Burnell’s own high and distinctive voice comes to the fore on a spacious, gritty and ultimately heartbreaking adaptation of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow. The percussive buildup to the ploughboy’s death is proof in itself of his mastery of mood. This is a ballad that has always been dramatic in an almost Shakespearean sense, and Burnell more than does it justice.
While Burnell seems at home with the driving rhythms and electric guitars of folk rock, he is anything but one-dimensional. The jaunty skip of Robin Hood And The Pedlar is created with nothing more than acoustic guitars, Polly Bolton’s mandolin and Matthew Mefford’s double bass, while The Snow It Melts The Soonest (unsurprisingly one of the Winter songs) has a jazzy, restrained instrumental section in which Bernell’s Hammond duets with Mefford’s bass, and the whole song is ornamented with Ben Burnell’s pretty, quick-fingered acoustic guitar.
Of all the songs here, Lord Franklin is perhaps closest to its predecessors. Burnell’s version matches Martin Carthy’s for simple emotional clarity. It is the only song on the album performed without any collaborators – Burnell is accompanied by his own accordion and acoustic guitar – and he achieves a remarkable, gentle sadness in both his singing and his playing. It is followed by perhaps the strangest thing on the album: the instrumental King Of The Fairies has a familiar enough tune, but the manner in which it is played is extraordinary. It is a glorious romp, veering between folk and prog, with Burnell’s organ straying well into Keith Emerson territory. There are elements of East Of Eden and Stormcock-era Roy Harper in there too, and somehow it all works perfectly. The Banshee Set, another instrumental, has a similar effect, but with added autoharp, fiddle and flute, the latter provided by Cristina Crespo.
The history of folk music may be littered with morally dubious songs (see the original versions of Two Magicians for a good example) but there are still more songs of protest, of moral outrage. These often take the form of anti-war songs. Burnell’s contribution to this tradition is a version of the Irish song Mrs McGrath, in which the widow of the title vows revenge on the warring countries responsible for the loss of her son’s legs. It is a typical Celtic tune, full of black humour and with a spring in its step despite the unpleasant subject matter, and it shows that Burnell is equally at home with songs from British and Irish traditions. Here he acknowledges a debt to Bruce Springsteen, whose version of this song he discovered by chance while still at school.
There are few more enigmatic songs in the English folk canon than Reynardine, and Burnell’s version adds to the strangeness by beginning the song in spacy, bucolic mode, drenched with the unworldly, detached sound of a mellotron. The song then reinvents itself as a psych-rocker. This approach freshens Reynardine up without sacrificing any of its considerable sense of mystery.
Perhaps the most breathtaking moment on Songs From The Seasons is The Nightingale, an expansive reworking of an old Danish song. The melody will be familiar to anyone who has heard Willie O Winsbury, but the startling, savagely beautiful lyrics are unlike anything else. The music floats on, graceful with cello, until the final couple of minutes, when a bracing and emotionally draining guitar solo brings the song to its conclusion. And as if that weren’t enough, the album bows out with Farewell To Tarwathie, an old Scottish whaling song of departure and return, full of hope and trepidation. It provides the perfect epilogue to an album full of loving detail and exceptional musicianship, an album of genuine ambition, scope and variety.
Upcoming Gigs and Festivals
02/06/18 — The Black Swan Folk Weekend
23/6/18 — Beardy Folk Festival
14/7/18 — Lincoln Folk Festival
22/7/18 — Music On The Marr festival
17/8/18 — Folkeast Festival
Order Songs from the Seasons via http://www.joshuaburnell.co.uk/