London-based folk-roots quartet The Bara Bara Band has been around for close on seven years, releasing two sparky and quite idiosyncratic EPs before going all out on a full-length album (Escape From Clinch Mountain) in 2015, which kick-started the band's now-trademark mixture of original compositions and enterprisingly-reworked traditional material. Over the years, the remarkably consistent lineup - Ruth Jacob on banjo, bass, tin whistle and harmonica, Rupert Browne on guitar and bass, Will Dobson on drums and Boris Ming on violin - has evolved into a distinctive ensemble that blends the quirkier side of alt-folk with elements of Appalachian old-time, and nowhere is this better illustrated than on The Seeds Inside, which, as Ruth explains, "reflects traditions within music, how the old is contained inside the new and the new existed within the old".
This apparent contradiction is perhaps best exemplified by the band's take on What Put the Blood, a confident and unusual rendition where the outcome of the tale comes with a grim inevitability after following through different interpretive stages, whereby Rupert's chilling, precisely enunciated staccato vocal is accompanied first by a pounding drum tattoo then by a loping but still unsettling irregularly-metred rhythmic charge with fuller instrumental backing and introducing a fiery fiddle solo along the way. A track like this wouldn't have been out of place in a late-60s psych-folk-cum-folk-rock context, while on the other hand it's harder to imagine album opener Mists Of Time being recorded in that era, not least in its lyric's contemporary concept, but also since its musical marriage of plucking old-time banjo and oriental-sounding fiddle riffing also feels (paradoxically) more "modern" (few bands outside of COB and the more obscure American roots outfits like Kaleidoscope were doing this kind of thing at the time).
By an interesting coincidence, both tracks I've namechecked so far draw to their close in a cappella vocal mode; the Bara Baras' version of The Barley And The Rye is also entirely a cappella, coming full circle with a whispered delivery for the repeat of the first verse fading into the ether. The Bara Bara Band's vocal delivery is a feature that grabs one's attention, with an expressive insistence that cleverly moulds with the narrative. It might sometimes recall Stick In The Wheel, but only in the determinedly "local English" aspect, being altogether less raw and untutored - interestingly, the band lists SITW among their influences (along with the ISB, Derroll Adams, Shirley Collins, Rattle On The Stovepipe and Alasdair Roberts: an impressive and revealing list). Quite often during the course of a song the instruments will pull away and leave the vocal exposed for a line or two, as on More And More, a sardonic commentary on capitalism and greed. Indeed, most of the band's original songs confront desperately contemporary subject matter: Telling Me I Should Know rails against the bombardment of information and misinformation (yeah, don't you just want to close your eyes and ears and lie in a field!); the plaintive All Look The Same pleads for empathy with refugees by making direct reference to the camps at Calais; and the rollicking On The M25 takes a wry fun look at one's progress along that notorious thoroughfare.
On the more positive side, Plimsoll (an arrangement of a broadside) celebrates the achievements of the politician Samuel Plimsoll, who successfully canvassed for better safety on cargo ships, while Wandle is an affectingly lyrical reminiscence centred on the South London river close to the band's home turf. The album is rounded out with an instrumental romp through Paddy On The Turnpike. In general, a sense of distinct rhythmic adventurousness and drive also characterises the Bara Bara Band's music, yet the drumming's not obsessive and there's a warmly contoured edge to the percussive element that propels rather than smothers. The album finale is an uncredited bonus track, a rousingly ramshackle rendition of All For Me Grog - just unashamedly unpretentious feelgood good-time music (and why not?…)
It's not always easy to tease out the lyrics from the interesting, busily layered instrumental backdrops, where there's often more happening than immediately meets the ear - so you may need to listen harder to reap the full benefits. But it's worth getting into, and if you're looking for a richly inventive alt-folk outfit embracing both contemporary and traditional sensibilities, then the Bara Bara Band collective is for you.
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