There has always been a darkness to be found in folklore whether that be in the form of legendary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads or other disasters that impinge upon our world. Furthermore, there’s beauty in the sadness surrounding such events that creative artists can plug into for their artistic outputs. You could not ask for a more creative gathering of musicians than that which you’ll find in Hack-Poets Guild and their debut release, ‘Blackletter Garland’, amply reveals the depth and darkness in traditional folk music.
This new collaboration finds Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann pooling their talents to produce twelve songs that are either inspired by or new interpretations of historic broadside ballads. These songs came about after an invitation to examine the latter in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. For those not familiar with broadside ballads, these are printed song sheets that were used as news media in days gone by.
While we should give a nod to producer and instrumentalist Gerry Diver who helps to create the moody, brooding atmosphere on this collection, it’s Waterson, Knapp and Mann who take turns in leading the direction on each track. Opening the album with ‘Ten Tongues’, Marry Waterson tackles the topic of death, decay and rebirth in a rich mixture that includes backing vocals from the rest of the trio and instrumentation that involves bronze meat cleaver, shackles, skulls, clackamore and ‘other contraptions’ – more of which later! Its dark subject matter does not stop the song from being both beautiful and having a catchy chorus line.
Don’t be fooled by that opening track. This is not an album of wall to wall misery with, for example, Waterson’s contributions, ‘Something To Love Me’ and ‘Be Kind To Each Other’ offering lighter messages wrapped in the gentlest of melodies. The former, in particular, being blessed with a delicious string arrangement over a languorous beat courtesy of drums from Laurence Hunt whilst the latter lays on a bed of strings and piano. As well as Gerry Diver’s input on piano and violin on these and other tracks, credit must go to Barney Morse-Brown for the inventive cello and cello effects found here.
Singer songwriter Lisa Knapp kicks off her contributions with ‘Daring Highwayman’, a song that presents the gritty reality of the role as opposed to the ‘stand and deliver’ romanticism that we hear elsewhere. Her almost spoken word vocal, the insistent plucked fiddle and drum drive the song along in what is a very danceable rhythm. Elsewhere, on ‘The Troubles Of This World’, her vocal and that of her harmonising colleagues takes a more traditional approach on a song whose topic of inequality resonates with us today as much as the alternative title of the original broadside, ‘Nothing Cheap But Poor Men’s Labour’.
Like Marry Waterson, Nathaniel Mann has artistic skills that extend beyond the more obvious music related ones that he utilises as one third of the experimental Dead Rat Orchestra. He counts among his talents being a film, soundscape and instrument maker as well as an inveterate archive digger. This manifests itself in vastly different approaches best revealed on this record by his tracks ‘Hemp & Flax’ and ‘Meal For Worms’. The former is a standout track with its memorable singalong aided and abetted by the harmonising trio. Using a hemp beating break and hemp to create the clapping beat not only sets the tone of the song but reflects its tale of prison work from the original broadside. The use of this ancient contraption contrasts with the hymn like ‘Meal For Worms’ and its eerie vocal where he applies the modern technology of distortion, autotuning and pitch-shifting.
As you’ll gather, this is no run of the mill folk album. Not for Hack-Poets Guild does the world of folk music stand still, nor does it need to be contained by narrow definitions of approach. Though their debut release has some dark moments, ‘Blackletter Garland’ is an album rich in historical reference and contemporary invention. A combination that makes this a must listen release.