Their ‘split’ was always going to be temporary – Jon Boden and John Spiers archly joked about their “first farewell” when they supposedly called it a day back in 2014. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure – a kind of relief, even – to have the pair back together with a new album. Its title, Fallow Ground, suggests that far from stifling their creativity, the pandemic has allowed musical ideas to ferment. A silver lining of the kind we must all grasp for!
Some of their key strengths are evident immediately. Opener Bluey Brink combines the pair’s reverence for Peter Bellamy, sense of drama and inability to resist the absurd. It’s an Australian song about a heroic sheep farmer who drinks sulphuric acid, which makes his beard catch fire. It’s also energetically, brilliantly arranged, and lustily performed. The jolly Butter & Cheese & All is another farcical tale discovered via Bellamy. It’s wildly cheerful – Spiers & Boden are kicking off a 23-date tour at the end of the month, and you can practically already hear an audience’s feet tapping along to this one.
Then the duo turn to another of their strengths: morris dance tunes that are scholarly, considered… and flat-out fun. Cuckoo’s Nest / Saltash /William Irwin’s Modal Hornpipe is engaging and brisk, while the opening bars of The Mallard / Valentine / The Procession recall the beginning of Bellowhead’s riotous version of Haul Away. It’s a more elegant tune, but there’s a similar sense of excitement building as the piece progresses, morphing into a punchy jig. The momentum carries into Goddesses / Red House, another display of the pair’s easy virtuosity.
The Fog, composed by Spiers, is the album’s first hint of melancholia. The sleeve notes say it was written “after experiencing one of those short days in the middle of winter that start off under a shroud of fog that then persists until the eerie light disappears again” – suggesting this is a metaphor for something we’ve all felt recently. The elegant interplay between fiddle and melodeon is certainly evocative of sunshine and mist, while the Elly Lucas-photographed sleeve art also features it, making this – along with the title track, of course – a kind of emotional centre to the album.
And that title track? It’s a breezy love song, involving a cockerel – but more pointedly not involving betrayal, ‘conquest’, unwanted pregnancy, or any of the other trad song tropes that tend to complicate love songs. Admittedly, this robs it of some drama, and it puzzlingly ends on a fade out, but it underscores the album’s positivity. In fact, there’s nothing murderous on any of the 13 tracks, “which is probably a first and may get us expelled from the English Folk Dance & Song Society”, quips Boden.
The closest it gets is with the inclusion of Reynardine – most often read as a cautionary, figurative warning against the advances of a werefox. This version will be familiar to those who heard Boden’s rendition for his A Folk Song A Day project. It’s a lovely arrangement, beautifully sung – so much so that its ambiguous ending feels likely to be a more romantic one.
There’s a different kind of romance in Graeme Miles’ sentimental On Yonder Banks, but it’s tunes that dominate the album’s close, and Spiers & Boden are simply on wonderful form on this front. For the most part, the pair are sparing with the stomp box, and the additional percussive weight it adds. It’s there, but on the whole the album is more delicate than 2011’s The Works or 2008’s Vagabond. Funny Eye / Cheshire Hornpipe offers four minutes of finger-testing action for both players, while the album’s closer, Bailey Hill / Wittenham Clumps is its banger: a meaty melodeon sound (it’s a ‘one-row four-stop’ instrument, we’re told) married with the fearsome skill of its player, and his equally talented musical partner. It’s a bracing end to an enthralling album.
Fallow Ground is out on Hudson Records on September 11