Album Review: Bellowhead – ‘Broadside’

The revival of folk music over the last five years and its seamless transition into the charts has been among the more surprising developments in British popular music in recent times. A style once regarded as unfathomably unfashionable and for the ears of clueless country weirdos only has been transformed into a trendy new scene, begun by the sweet acoustic melodies of fair-haired girl-folk artists like Laura Marling and catapulted into the mainstream by sharp-dressed Londoners Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons. While these acts have shaken up the Top 40 somewhat, they’ve left a sour taste in the mouths of many observers. The essential issue which grates so strongly with critics is its lack of honesty; it all appears coldly calculated and intricately devised, from the waistcoats right down to the pointed boots.

Bellowhead would, of course, not wish to be associated with the scene. Famed for their energetic live performances, the 11-piece multi-instrumental collective have developed a cult following within the folk community, expanded substantially with the release of their 2010 album Hedonism, incidentally the highest-selling independently-released folk record of all time. The band, begun by the duo of Jon Boden (fiddle and vocals) and John Spiers (melodeon) in the early 2000s, combines more traditional folk themes and sounds within complex, unusual structures, and on their fourth LP Broadside, they continue in much the same vein.

Broadside is, unlike their previous work, a collection of classic folk songs reworked and re-jigged by Boden and friends, with a little help from producer John Leckie who has enjoyed studio time with the likes of Radiohead and The Stone Roses. These fresh interpretations feature Bellowhead’s trademark eccentricity and big-band theatricality, and are initially charming. Opener ‘Byker Hill’s rasping strings and chanted backing vocals get the head bobbing and the toes tapping, while ‘Lillibulero’ skips along like a musical number.

Quite quickly however, it all gets a bit desperate. The folk clichés are crammed into any available space – the beer-swilling sea shanties and lyrical nods to a mystical ‘true love’ with ‘golden hair’ are ever-present, while the hugeness of the string section is so overwhelming that it detracts from the charm rather than enhancing it.

It’s not the extreme folk-ery that is most uncomfortable about Broadside though, it’s the sheer weight of sound. Besides ‘Thousands Or More’, undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, these compositions have too much going on to properly stomach. A melting pot of kooky sounds and skippy beats, tracks like ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ and ‘Black Beetle Pies’ don’t really add up to anything in the end.

Ultimately it’s not clear how I’m supposed to react to this record. Should I be swinging my partner round and round in a hoe-down, or should I be sat on my own with a pen and paper cataloguing the album’s intricacies. It’s this confusion that puts me off Bellowhead, despite my initial affection for their oaky rustic charm.

They claim to be a party band with ‘serious intellectual pretensions’, but Bellowhead seem to be flicking between one and the other rather than melting the two together (and it’s pretty difficult not to splutter a little laugh at song titles like ‘Dockside Rant’ and ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’). After all, music of this giddy, swash-buckling style is best stripped back and devoid of complication. One thing Bellowhead might learn from the Mumfords is to keep it simple.

Jack Dixon

Jack is listening to The Czars – Before… But Longer

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Nick
    15 October 2012 at 22:44
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    What sets Bellowhead apart from other ‘folk revival’ bands that have appeared in the charts over the previous 5 years is that they perform traditional folk songs – albeit with modern reworkings. What you describe as ‘folk clichés’ are lyrics that were penned centuries ago (as were the titles). I don’t think you can blame the band for words written long before the band members were born!

    Having read this review I think you’ve entirely missed the point of what Bellowhead are about and what they are trying to accomplish. They are a big-band; to ‘keep it simple’ they would have to fire over half their members! In my opinion this album is yet another outstanding musical triumph by the band and if they make it to the top-40 it will be the first real English folk music there for decades.

    • BenJames
      22 October 2012 at 11:06
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      Personally, I find Bellowhead laughable. Their music is clichic in every sense of the term, just because they use “lyrics that were penned centuries ago” doesn’t excuse them from their hilariously conventional musicianship and predictable delivery. When listening to their music I cry with laughter at how committed they are to their middle-of-road approach to folk music, it sounds like the music to ‘Springwatch’. When watching the music video for ‘10,000 Miles Away’ I expect Bill Oddie to pop up during the chorus.

      I think what Jack takes issue with (as do I) is the fact that Bellowhead offer nothing new to the Folk genre, whereas artists like Fleet Foxes, Joanna Newsom & Anais Mitchell are all exploring the boundaries of folk and are attempting to fight against the very stagnation bands such as Bellowhead sustain. As ‘fun’ as a band like Bellowhead may be, their music is ultimatelty detrimental to the folk genre because they trivialise it to the point of parody and keeps a genre which is chastised for its lack of innovation thoroughly in the dark ages.

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