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Spiers and Boden - Songs

Spiers and Boden
Fellside FECD194

When they haven't been ratcatching for Eliza Carthy, or bellowing with this year's festival favourite big band, Spiers and Boden have somehow found time to record, in their own words, 'an ambitious project': that is, a double album release to 'reflect the two sides of the English musical tradition.' Tunes was released in May 2005, and five months later, Songs has morris-danced into the folk music arena.

The history teacher struggling to make their very modern class full of texting kids get a feel for England's colourful past should use Spiers and Boden's latest, as the songs illustrate the very English lives of sailors, morris dancers, criminals, gamekeepers and cuckolding monarchs. And, unsurprisingly given the title, it is these tales of olde Englande that take centre stage, and so musical accompaniment is kept minimalist and unimposing.

But that does not mean to say that it is flat, and only suited to those that are interested in the text. Old Maui, track two on the album, vividly captures the sea-faring life its text depicts by lilting interwoven ostinatos from both fiddle and melodeon to paint the sea's treacherous and repetitive nature. The listener can taste the grog and feel the sea air, despite the fact that Boden's dramatic voice is not nearly as raucous as a true sailor. Similarly, the following track, Horn Fair, sees Spiers' concertina take on a new persona - that of imitating the brass instruments of which the text describes.

In between the English heritage sneaks a modern and infamous American figure, but is very carefully disguised so that the listener may well have no idea. Innocent When You Dream, a Tom Waits cover that John and Jon 'prefer to pretend is a Victorian parlour ballad that was mislaid,' is adopted and adapted by the duo and given English treatment. The melodeon punctuating the waltz rhythms and the delicate fiddle enforces the listener to think of Dickensian one-man-bands and decorative carousels, so it feels like Songs has given a comprehensive portrayal of the history of English folk song.

It is easy to assume that innovative folk music, particularly that delivered by comparably young musicians, is that which is given a modern twist. However, Songs is very much rooted in its English heritage without sounding dated or as if it has been done before. Spiers and Boden have approached their Songs with a sympathetic ear, and used their signature instruments to interpret them in a manner that will both appease the orthodox folk veterans and provoke carefree dance from newcomers to the scene.

Sophie Parkes

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This album was reviewed in Issue 66 of The Living Tradition magazine.