Sam Lee Ground of Its Own Review

Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Lee’s interpretations can stand proudly within these songs’ long histories.

Jeanette Leech 2012

Formerly a visual artist, teacher of wilderness survival skills and burlesque dancer, Sam Lee jacked in all of these colourful careers to learn folk songs. Studying under the great balladeer and traveller Stanley Robertson, Lee gathered scores of traditional songs, and Ground of Its Own is Lee’s interpretation of eight of them.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, he sourced songs directly from oral tradition rather than via book research. Many are from gypsy and traveller communities and, in the sleevenotes, Lee is careful to credit the families from whom he learned them.

It means his feel for the songs is obvious. His delivery is intimate, and he inhabits the stories totally, letting the songs breathe into him rather than imposing his own personality onto them. However, many listeners simply won’t take to these vocals. His modern London twang is more akin to Damon Albarn than to a ballad singer.

Yet, persevere: because, with repeated listens, Lee’s voice makes increased sense. It’s clear that he uses his idiosyncratic vocals not to parody the songs, but to stamp his own era and experiences onto them.

Musically it’s a hodgepodge, but this approach works more often than not. The languid trumpets of On Yonder Hill contrast strikingly with the nerve-shredding shruti box on The Tan Yard Side. When the arrangements do misfire, it tends to be because of caution (as on the pedestrian percussive opener, The Ballad of George Collins), rather than because of too much ambition.

Most interesting of all is Wild Wood Amber. On this, Lee marries a simple and affecting Sussex folksong with a 1919 recording of the operatic intermezzo, Thaïs’ Méditation. The timeless, austere melancholia of the lyrics meets the mannered, schmaltzy melodrama of the early 20th century piano piece. On paper it should be a gruesome novelty, yet it’s extremely original and touching.

Ground of Its Own is a very likeable debut. Lee knows these songs are wind-whipped survivors and he meets their fearless spirit with plenty of innovation and the greatest of respect. His interpretations can stand proudly within these songs’ long histories.

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