Megson’s new album In a Box starts off on a sombre note. It’s a canny move Debbie and Stu Hanna have made before – they kicked off 2010’s The Longshot with the heart-rending Two Match Lads. It establishes a thread of melancholy necessary to an album that makes every effort to cover most of life’s milestones and major events in just ten tracks.
Clifton Hill Mine, then, is about the tragic events of 18 June 1885, when 178 men and boys were killed by an explosion at a pit near Salford. The Hannas have the confidence and nous to let the grim tale take centre stage – their accompaniment is sparse and occasional, though when they come the piano trills are appropriately heavy and dramatic.
Bet Beesley & Her Wooden Man is more upbeat – a farcical tale of the marriage between a sailor’s widow and a (literally) legless nabob – with a jolly delivery perhaps informed by the duo’s children’s album, When I Was a Lad, released in 2012. Seth Lakeman adds his trademark vibrant fiddle-playing – a welcome addition to the Megson sound.
Stu’s brawny mandola and guitar playing forms the backbone of the album, but the duo smartly augment the sound, with a pleasing twang of banjo and crisp whistle playing on Charlie the Newsmonger, for example.
Old Folks Tea – a setting of a work by ‘Pitman Poet’ (and Megson fave) Tommy Armstrong is a light-hearted take on what sounded like quite a feast and a party at an old folks’ home in County Durham, with a memorable, twiddly mandolin solo from Stu. On a more serious note, the traditional Still I Love Him – which features a stunning vocal from Debbie, and sweet backing from Jess Morgan – is a sobering, grown-up declaration of love to a less-than-ideal man.
The stories aren’t all so personal. The excellent River Never Dies is a document of the Tees, taking the Nazi bombing campaign of the 1940s as its start point. Driving guitar and an infectious chorus make it one of the album’s singalong highlights. A more unusual Teeside tale is story of Moses Carpenter, a Native American Mohawk who came to Middlesbrough as part of a travelling medicine show. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards. The bright and breezy song laments his being buried “far far away from his home o’er the billow”, but posthumously welcomes him to the town – it is said 15,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession.
Songs to Soothe a Tired Heart celebrates the bond between parent and child. It’s moving without being sappy. The Willows pop up to lend vocals, gentle dobro and mournful fiddle to an appropriately dreamy appreciation of lullabies. It’s original and affecting, its subject matter a distance relative of The Smiths’ Rubber Ring and its “songs that saved your life”.
The sentimental Dirty Clothes explores memories of childhood and growing up. It verges on the twee, but is rescued by a smart line that rhymes “Febreze ‘em” and “sees ‘em”. The nostalgia trip is done better on the album’s closing title track. It’s an acutely observed look through the memories we attach to the objects we collect – “all those memories stored in a box”. In the Hannas case, there’s a collection of photographs, a Friends box set and an old bike. The song is moving, told with humour and sincerity, with a chorus beautifully sung in harmony – something you wish they’d do more often.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the fun and games of When I Was a Lad, but In a Box is a curiously reflective album for such a young, cheerful duo to produce. That said, the duo have pulled it off with a wisdom and eloquence beyond their years. That Megson able to inhabit the characters and moods of such a varied set of songs so wholeheartedly is testament to their considerable abilities as songwriters, arrangers and performers.
In a Box is out on EDJ Records on May 12