Review Summary: Damn you, Mumford and Sons.
I will never understand what it is about folk music that makes people so abruptly dismissive of it. From my experience, it is one of the most interesting genres of music in existence, and the most progressive in the creativity of the artists. This is probably why it bugs me so much that bands like Mumford & Sons are the closest the genre has to a breakthrough into the world of popular music. The watered down, almost offensive blandness of their albums can only serve to teach the listeners a disregard for more diverse music. While they snuggle into their musical comfort zone, the creativity of the more intelligent bands that reside in the genre will be lost on them. They will feel they have nothing to offer they can't already suckle from what is popular and accepted. As the old saying goes, 'Variety is the spice of life', and I pity the people who are not willing to embrace it. This is why I find collectives such as Bellowhead so endearing. The range of music they play, the complex instrumentation behind every song, and the skill of the musicians on their respective instruments makes Bellowhead one of the more interesting bands of the world today.
A little history lesson now:
Up until the end of the 19th century, there wasn't much interest in English folk music. Around this time, the composer Vaughan Williams heard someone singing a folk song at a celebration. From this, he started to make collections of traditional folk songs to fuel his fascination, and to adapt them into his own compositions. This was the beginning to a long tradition of folk composition to come, in which artists would take folk songs that were being discovered during the folk revival, and adapt them into compositions of their own. However, in these modern times, this 'bank' of inspiration has been worn out, and all the original compositions have more or less been found. Despite this setback, Bellowhead manage to still produce interesting takes on classics from the genre. On Burlesque, they also pick out a variety of songs, featuring material from the Napoleonic Wars, the American minstrel movement and sea-shanties from Brazil .
The album opens with a shanty, 'Rigs of the time', showcasing the interesting instrumentation Bellowhead are able to accomplish. The song opens with the sounds of a small orchestra tuning up, which is fitting, because that is what Bellowhead essentially is. Twenty instruments are played over the eleven members, with 6 providing vocals. They even have their own brass and string sections. 'Rigs of the time' constantly switches between full frontal assaults of melody from the percussion and brass, and soft cradling from the string section. This style is prominent throughout the album, and on many of the tracks it is difficult to keep track of each melody being played at once by the many instruments. It all fits together with remarkable harmony and clarity however, with every musician adding something new and interesting to the music.
Burlesque features both instrumental, and vocally accompanied pieces. The mood of the album generally shifts, depending on which of these styles of music is chosen. The instrumental pieces are most often upbeat and joyful, whereas the songs with vocals are more likely to be serious. Front man Jon Boden (Fiddle, Vocals, Guitar, Tambourine and Tin Can) sings with a mostly mournful tone, and an impressive ability to hit some of the harder, longer notes on songs such as 'Across the Line' and 'Rigs of the time'.
Certain songs have moments of completely inspired lunacy. The beginning of 'Flash Company' begins with a simple melody played on a Glockenspiel, and turns into a completely dissonant mix of clattered percussion and various brass and woodwind instruments playing scattered melodies, all while the vocals are sung to an unrelated tune without faltering once. At other times, the techniques are more simple in engaging the audience. The constant build up throughout 'Courting too slow' brilliantly reflects the story behind the song, and hold the listener's attention throughout.
The main reason why this album is so important though, is because it is a grand statement on creativity and the extent that it can be used. Every song on this album is definitively a Bellowhead song. There is nothing that feels covered or copied, all because of how much they make the sound their own. If a band which has followed a genre path of reproducing another artist's music can do it so well, it only stand to reason that musicians that create their own original music should be able to create something truly spectacular.
While Mumford and Sons represents the bland naivety of an act that is trying to bring it's genre to the mainstream and accidentally causing harm to the said genre, I see this album as a ray of hope for future musicians of the world. I can only imagine a world in which this was the album that hit the mainstream instead of 'Sigh No More'. Instead of the fans who will refuse to reach out to anything more diverse or interesting than the bare creative minimum, we might have some more people who actually appreciate well structured and impeccably designed music.
Rigs of Time
Frogs Legs (Fete Du Village)/Dragon's Teeth