Established enough to surely be sick of those ‘do you regret calling yourselves that?’ questions (we’ve certainly asked it), The Young’uns – Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle – are about to release their fourth studio album. To be fair to the lads, youth is about more than age, and the album, Strangers, has many youthful attributes: energy, invention and an intoxicating sense of optimism among them. I’m not keen on June Tabor’s version of opener A Place Called England, but in The Young’uns’ hands it sounds deft and relevant.
The album is frontloaded by a series of songs based on real, relevant and recent events. Interpreting, even simply telling these stories is arguably one of the purest functions of ‘folk music’ – and principal songwriter Cooney is proving a master of it.
Ghafoor’s Bus celebrates Teeside grandad Ghafoor Hussain, who used his own cash to set up a travelling kitchen to serve up meals and cups of tea to hungry migrants and refugees across Europe. It’s cheerful and celebratory, as, surprisingly, is Carriage 12 – about the attempted terrorist attack on a train to Paris in August 2016, and how a cluster of heroic passengers saved the day. Both songs are jam-packed with facts and details, allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions about the stories.
It’s a technique Cooney uses regularly. Be the Man is brilliant: a tragic love story with a profoundly beautiful message. As a response to something so awful, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Dark Water, meanwhile – the album’s sure-fire Folk Award 2018 nomination for best original song – tells the story of two Syrian migrants who took the remarkable decision to swim the Aegean Sea, and even more remarkably survived.
Cooney has also looked to the past for stories to tell. Cable Street recounts the defiance, in 1936, of protesters who blocked a British Union of Fascists march. It’s a nuanced description, not triumphal, and is told from the perspective of a 16-year-old boy. The Young’uns covered similar ground on their debut album’s The Battle of Stockton, and there’s a touch more on the subject on the song Bob Cooney’s Miracle, but given the current political climate, it’s impossible to reiterate the message enough.
But what does all it sound like? for the most part, the group are content to rely on relatively simple vocal arrangements. This is wise: we want to hear the stories, and more importantly the trio are a pleasure to listen to, especially on Lapwings, one of the album’s more lyrically poetic numbers. Their harmonies are sweet, mournful and loaded with just the right amount of emotion. Elsewhere there are deft touches, such as the children’s choir on on Ghafoor’s Bus. On first listen, I felt Dark Water sounded a touch overproduced, but I’ve warmed to it since.
You can’t doubt the group’s sincerity, anyway. The liner notes give all the background information you could need, and an impressively committed album campaign has seen the group reach out to many of the subjects of their songs (see video, above). But such is Cooney’s ability as a songwriter, it’s possible to go in cold and be transfixed, from start to finish. It’s perhaps an unlikely idea for a song, but closer The Hartlepool Pedlar recounts the founding of Marks & Spencer, and its final line puts the album’s title in powerful perspective. Gripping stuff.