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Bellowhead Broadside Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Album four from one of folk’s 21st century success stories.

Jude Rogers 2012

It's all there in that name. Those three syllables suggest a hollering madman, and a ferocity that will – for the newcomer – seem far removed from folk music. But Bellowhead are one of the genre's 21st century success stories.

An 11-piece group founded by duo John Spiers and Jon Boden in 2004, they've played Proms, won seven Radio 2 Folk Awards, and their last album (2010's Hedonism) sold 60,000 copies, becoming the best-selling independent folk LP of all time.

Broadside sees the band decamp to Monmouth's legendary Rockfield Studios, with their now-established producer John Leckie, more famous in pop circles for producing The Stone Roses. This is folk music obeying different rules without doubt, cast in wilder, brighter colours.

Broadside is no typical folk album, either. We're more in the realm of The Pogues and Dexys, hanging out with a thinking-and-doing party band, who twist traditional tunes through rabble-rousing arrangements.

This can work, as their treatment of the drinking song, Old Dun Cow, reveals. Stirring into life with a sinister bass clarinet, a clattering snare drum soon promises menace. Then horns and strings arrive, creating the soundworld of a 1960s film thriller. For a song about boozing men stuck in a burning pub, it creates a very fresh kind of drama.

The sea shanty 10,000 Miles Away is also given a clever reboot. Its title promises travel, and the song delivers it, beginning with hints of tropicalia music before giving over to the jangles of a bluegrass banjo.

Elsewhere, Broadside's mood remains one of dramatic excess, as much of the theatre as of the turntable. It's there when Black Beetle Pies begins with a terrifying, gurgling laugh, and when Lillibulero sets a Henry Purcell tune against jaunty accordions, before screeching middle-eight string harmonics move us on.

But the stories can also, sadly, get lost in the volume. This happens literally in The Wife of Usher’s Well, where the ever-blaring horn section smothers the voices completely.

Live, this may not matter, but on record, it does. When Bellowhead's mission is telling old stories in rousing new ways, sometimes the noise has to die down to make these narratives matter.

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