Top positive review
A remarkable debut from a group that reinvented folk for the 21st Century
on 20 September 2017
I can well imagine that Bellowhead won't be to the taste of everybody, but I absolutely love them. In fact, I believe they may be an act that could convert people who most likely don't think that they would like this sort of thing. Sadly, they've disbanded now, but not only did they release refreshingly vibrant folk albums, they were one of the very best live acts around, as their collective musicianship was nothing less than astounding. The wonderful thing about Bellowhead is that their music is just bursting with life; whether they're performing traditional English folk songs, sea shanties, reels, American minstrel ditties or tunes that have been passed down from generation to generation, they do so with such joy and sparkling joie de vivre that their music frequently makes me inadvertently grin from ear to ear. Even the slower songs are performed with heart and a flourish. In the colourful booklet, the eleven-piece band, led by Jon Boden and John Spiers, explain the origins of each piece, but I would certainly leave the reading until you've listened to and enjoyed the album a good few times, because this is music for the heart and feet, primarily, and the head last.
Burlesque is the full-length debut album from Bellowhead and, as such, it's admirable how accomplished it is. However, if I was recommending an album for people new to the group to discover them, I would probably suggest they start with the 2015 “best of” compilation, Pandemonium, and, if they liked what they heard, proceed to discover the depths of their studio albums. The reason is that, although much of Burlesque is nothing less than brilliant, there are at least a few tracks which could be described as hard work. The intriguing album opener, Rigs Of The Time, gives you a good idea of what you may expect from the music to come; an usual time signature, traditional folk instruments such as accordion and fiddle combined with punchy brass, eccentric percussion and a spirited vocal line from Boden. One of the unrivalled highlights is London Town, on which the brass section is magnificent; it builds to the kind of spirited performance to get your pulse racing and your feet moving. In a similar vein, Hopkinson's Favourite is a catchy instrumental piece featuring a frenetic violin melody with an almost reggae or ska feeling to the moody mid-section and Frog's Legs & Dragon's Teeth is an intricate, enjoyable, danceable tune.
The last couple of songs on the album, Fire Marengo and Death And The Lady are both superb, with the former, a complex, spirited, slightly dark piece with origins in the Southern USA which is introduced by an unusual walking tuba bassline and the latter a slower, folk tune based on a conversation between a young maiden and the grim reaper; it boasts a truly brilliant instrumental breakdown. There are plenty of other excellent songs; the rousing old American folk song, Jordan, for example, the seafaring tale of Across The Line and the toe-tapping, choppy instrumental, Sloe Gin. There's only one track on the album I don't particularly like, and that is the slightly discordant Flash Company, which seems to be at odds with the general feel of the rest of the album. That one oddity aside, Burlesque is a remarkable first album from an immensely talented band; a group that reinvigorated and, to some extent, reinvented folk for the 21st Century. Marvellous stuff.