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Dunx Music DUNXCD028

The long-awaited Poachers Bold, our worthy folk-rockers’ third studio album and first release since All Rogues And Villains six long years ago (not counting their Working The Tradition compilation), is certainly cause for rejoicing. It marks Duncan’s own personal recent return to music-making after an enforced medical sabbatical and finds him and his merry crew in fine studio fettle. And, when you insert the disc into the player and you hear the distinctive sound of hammer striking anvil, you just know that the band will forge ahead (sorry!) with something suitably sturdy! In this case, it’s a vibrant and thoughtfully-managed (pace folk pedants!) take on The Blacksmith (I guess the percussive punctuation of the anvil is Duncan’s own calling-on gambit), which is brought to us with outstanding clarity of texture and an unerring balance that genuinely understands the internal dynamic of the line-up, preserving the essential thrust and charge and forward momentum yet stepping back just enough to not overpower the listener with needless force.

After this impressive opener, the deliberately celebratory Welcome You Home seems a bit of an anti-climax – maybe it should’ve been placed at the very start of the running-order, since after all, while ostensibly, euphorically, recalling the homecoming of the likes of Olympic heroes and Forces personnel to their families, it could also be taken to signal last year’s abundantly welcome return of everything McFarlane to the live music scene after that aforementioned frustrating hiatus. Track 3 brings the first of two typically chunky tune-medleys, which contains some nifty mandolin (a recent addition to Duncan’s armoury) and an economic, funky bass solo courtesy of the band’s newest recruit, Martin Ward (whose characterful weaving up and down the fretboard proves a constant source of pleasure).

The remainder of the disc mixes punchy but sensitively rocked-up trad songs with a handful of tried and road-tested fresh compositions from Duncan’s own pen and highlights occur in both categories. Trad-wise, the chestnut Cold Haily Windy Night is reworked with a storyteller’s command of vocal delivery that mirrors the infectious bounce of the rhythm; Rufford Park similarly convinces, stirringly overcoming Duncan’s adoption of a rustic burr, while Billy Boy is just one of the arrangements that’s enhanced by the insertion of an archetypal McFarlane “tunette”. I admit to having had initial reservations about Duncan’s decision to compose a completely new tune for Boys Of Bedlam, which sounds a touch plain – but then, I imagine we’re too accustomed to the “usual” one.

Among Duncan’s latest clutch of original songs, For Jane Tomlinson is a stunner in which the anthemic melody of the key phrase, “we’ll always remember”, soars almost uncontrollably in a wave of wailing remembrance (and this track also contains arguably the most lyrical of the disc’s leccie guitar solos); the uplifting To The Chevin punches the air in defiance at those of this world who’re out to ruin our lives, while the more enigmatic, rather eerie post-punk-indie feel of Ribbons Fall is hard to get out of your head once heard. The pounding tattoo of The Weight Of It All pervades your consciousness – and your conscience – with something of the air of a lesser Richard Thompson creation (that’s intended as a compliment), even while its melody might not quite achieve gold-star memorability status – which is a fate you can’t imagine the closing Drinking Song (by now a well-established live gig staple) ever suffering!

Time and again during the course of this fabulously well-produced album (on this occasion a joint effort by Duncan himself and ace axe-wielder Geoff Taylor) I’m struck by the astounding cohesiveness of the overall band sound, while at the same time the easy togetherness of the participants seems to allow for felicitous incidental subtleties and to enable the special musical attributes of each band member to shine through the full monty (I wouldn’t begin to undersell any of them by using the all-embracing tag of mere support crew). And any suspicions that the band’s musical signature might by now, several years in, have become a formula, can readily be dispelled by the intense vitality and knowing joie-de-vivre that’s the mark of a band that still really gets off on making good music amongst friends. Bold poachers of tradition they surely are, and they do what they do with strength and confidence.

It’s a cliché to say it – but folk-rock devotees will definitely not be disappointed by this fine new offering, which both boldly develops and enterprisingly consolidates the reputations of Duncan and his mighty quintet. Oh, and the cover art and artistic design’s really attractive too.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 98 of The Living Tradition magazine.