It’s big, it’s noisy, it features cackling – it’s the new album from Bellowhead. There are plenty of reviews out there, so I thought I’d try something different: here’s a track-by-track analysis of Broadside…
Byker Hill (trad/arr Boden): What a way to set out your stall. Perhaps the most well-known traditional track Bellowhead have ever tilted at, most will be familiar with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick’s mellifluous, meandering version. Here it’s a commanding, resounding prelude, “Byker Hill and Walker Shore / Collier Lads for ever more” becomes a mighty, defiant chant, while elsewhere the band hit us with all their instruments: a wash of brass, strings, pipes and drums all brought in at different moments, as if to introduce themselves. The volume is taken down for the funny, absurd line about Geordie Johnson’s dancing pig, as if we need to focus on that bit – which perhaps we do. Big, brilliant, inventive: this is a pretty good start, gang.
Old Dun Cow (Harry Wincott): The key word here is ‘funky’. Old Dun Cow is a funny old song, about a strange cast of characters drinking a pub dry as it burns to the ground (including “licking up the whisky off the floor” – we’ve all been there). Here, it sounds like it might be the theme to a 1970s cop show, complete with an outro where, having solved the crime (who burned down the pub, perhaps), sharp-suited Detective Boden (see video, below) and his wisecracking team dance out the end credits to an outrageous Brendan Kelly saxophone solo. It could happen.
Roll the Woodpile Down (trad/arr Boden): A more traditional-sounding intro here, with lovely fiddle work balanced out by Paul Sartin’s oboe. The meaning of this sea song is a little difficult to pick out as Boden races through the words (in fact, on all the tracks he seems a little deeper in the mix than on previous Bellowhead albums), but it’s a imbued with a sense of happiness, thanks in part to the massed vocal on “that fine girl of mine’s on the Georgia line”. You’ll be singing along come October, whatever it’s about.
10,000 Miles Away (trad/arr Boden): A feisty drum roll heralds the first single from the album. Perhaps not as immediate as Hedonism’s superb New York Girls (not much is, to be fair), but it’s another joyful number, this time marked out by Benji Kirkpatrick’s irresistible, down-home banjo plucks. The narrator seems pretty jolly to be “off on the morning train”, and this is sure to be a dancey live favourite. There’s also a very enjoyable video (below) which features some excellent, um, acting from the gang. Boden’s suit is pretty nifty, too.
Betsy Baker (trad/arr Flood): A heartstring-tugging, devotional love song, again accented by Sartin’s oboe, which seems to add love’s requisite melancholy. “I never knew what it was to sigh / Til I saw Betsy Baker”, sings Boden, pleadingly and movingly. There’s an inconclusive ending, as the musical drama builds you start to feel quite sorry for the narrator. Whoever she was, Betsy must have been quite a gal.
Black Beetle Pies (trad/arr Flood): A grim and gruesome tale that might even make Indiana Jones flinch. Black Beetle Pies is arranged with great flair by Pete Flood, and told with pantomime-y relish by Boden and sundry cackling voices. Boney percussion, woozy clarinet and parping helicon all add to a dazzling, sinister mix. There are hints of Madness and Ian Dury in its peculiarly British bizarreness, and it races to a thrilling, maniacal conclusion.
Thousands or More (trad/arr Flood): It was a real surprise to see this on the track listing. When The Copper Family sing this (and they often do, it was Bob Copper’s favourite), it’s hard to imagine anything other than those time-honoured, heartfelt harmonies. Indeed, Bellowhead’s version begins in such a manner (though with unobtrusive squeezebox accompaniment from John Spiers). It sounds like a faithful, devotional tribute, but seconds in, whirling fiddles introduce a new, fast-moving motif, taking the song in a completely new direction. The tune is as uplifting and bright as the song’s words, and the chorus returns at just the right time. It’s an inventive, unexpected take on a classic that remains sympathetic to the source material: totally different, completely brilliant. This is Bellowhead at their best, and it’s a joy to listen to. “Drive sorrows away”, indeed.
Dockside Rant (Boden): Disappointingly this is the only ‘tune’ on the album, though to make up for that it’s a cracker, a little reminiscent of the group’s version of Foul Weather Call. While Boden’s jaunty composition perhaps doesn’t quite scale the heights of Burlesque’s Frog’s Legs & Dragon’s Teeth or Parson’s Farewell, from Hedonism, it’s a happy, dancey affair, with the steps marked out by Flood’s positive percussion.
The Wife of Usher’s Well (trad/arr Flood): Another unexpected treat, here’s a version that sounds like no other. A portentous, operatic chant – Boden is only just the lead singer here – is set to a thumping beat and Sam Sweeney’s sinister-sounding pipes. The effect is that the story is told at a relentless, unstoppable pace. The “I wish the wind may never cease” verse takes on a spooky, almost Biblical sense of importance. Again, it’s such an appropriate treatment, you wonder why no one ever thought of playing it like this before.
What’s the Life of a Man (trad/arr Flood): A fun, free-spirited arrangement that nods towards Bellowhead’s Brecht/Weill tendencies – the jolly music bouncing off the fatalistic, morbid lyrics. It’s my least favourite track – it doesn’t feel as inventive as the rest of the album, somehow – though Boden does get to exercise his vocal chords a bit more.
Lillibulero (trad/arr Boden): This is more like it – an almost Pixies-esque quiet-loud-quiet song about messing with the Devil and winning. Every element of the band is in great form here, and it sounds just as fun as it does musically accomplished – ie very. Check out this, erm, thoughtfully made fan video…
Go My Way (trad/arr Boden): Confusingly, this song mixes the regretful, lonesome Won’t You Go My Way with the carefree, rather more callous Saucy Sailor. Although it consequently feels as though Boden is singing the lines of two different personalities, it somehow works, with the more carefree character winning out in the end. Musically it’s a marvellous way to sign off, a mixture of stately pomp and funky-disco shuffle, plus a big false ending and a sassy string-led outro.
So there we have it. Broadside is a resounding success, in every sense. Ironically, it’s perhaps a little more hedonistic than its predecessor – it lacks the light and shade element quiet moments like Captain Wedderburn provided on their last album. But overall it’s another wonderful showcase from a band creaking with talent. Another big, noisy Bellowhead success.
Broadside is out 15 October on Navigator Records
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