They don't do anything by halves, this lot. Incredibly, given their awards, headlining festival appearances, cover features and reputation as the best live roots band in the land, this is the first proper Bellowhead album. The 5-track E.P.Onymous set out their stall in thrilling manner in 2004 and we've been gagging for the full montague ever since. Wild, joyous, perverse, bold, crazed, full-blooded, intricate, fearless, funny, epic and mostly BIGŠ Bellowhead don't disappoint. Fearlessly produced (by Ben Mandelson and Rob Keyloch) and beautifully packaged, it feels like a great album with a gorgeous booklet offering chapter and verse on the history and genesis of the mainly traditional material.
They carry the weight of expectation lightly, immediately filling the speakers with an audacious arrangement of the venerable old Rigs Of The Time over a cavalcade of brass that's wellŠ burlesque. Rhythms all over the place, booming horns coming at you from all angles and Mr Jon Boden's elastic voice skipping among it all, acrobatically telling us the story. If they ever do a remake of Cabaret and set it in London, this is the album that should be used as the soundtrack. There are 11 members of Bellowhead and none of them are knowingly under-used, whether in the epic choruses that lift the stirring likes of the sea anthem Across The Line to ever deeper recesses of emotion; or the exciting clash of dramatic instrumental interplay that keeps you guessing through the shanty Fire Marengo and the irrepressible flood of rhythms whipping us through Hopkinson's Favourite and the impossibly infectious dance tune Frog's Legs & Dragon's Teeth.
One or two of the big vocal numbers like Across The Line carry echoes of the Oysterband, but they are essentially rampaging through new territory here with each track sounding not so much like part of a soundtrack to a movie, but the entire movie itself. The sheer audacity with which they fling themselves into the theatre of the music is laced at every turn with the prospect that they'll fall flat on their faces. But, like a wobbly tightrope walker they have you on the edge of your seats pretty much all the way through and when - amid drum beats, fanfares and foolish grins - they emerge unscathed at the other end, the feeling of exhilaration is palpable.
It's not all knockabout stuff either. Their homage to the Copper Family on One May Morning Early is affectionate, respectful and deeply moving. Few singers either could carry off The Outlandish Knight as potently as Boden, given such a rich arrangement. A singer as extreme and stylised as this will not please everyone but I'm not sure the band would work with anyone else leading the vocals - it takes a huge character not to be swamped by such a kaleidoscope of sounds, but far from the mess it could easily be the album has cohesion and coherence to match its constant backdrop of fireworks.
They perhaps don't generate quite the stirring climax aimed for with Jordan and I'm not sure this version of Courting Too Slow adds anything to the one included on Spiers & Boden's Bellow album. The track to divide opinion above all others, though, is Flash Company, a delicious traditional song covered by many fine artists over the years. Bellowhead choose to do it in full am dram costume, Boden affecting the persona of a drunken bum over a jagged, discordant backing evoking the sounds of a seedy back-alley pub that suggests it owes a lot to Boden's hero Tom Waits, before they all come in as a lurching Dixieland jazz band for the chorus. It'll be a liberty too far for many but it's indicative of the willingness by this band to take a leap of faith that makes them so exciting. Prepare to be amazed.
Review from fRoots magazine October 2006.
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Janine Smith, Oxford
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