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Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Album: Big Machine
Label: Topic
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.eliza-carthy.com

In 2013, Eliza assembled the Wayward Band in order to explore and celebrate her long and varied career in folk and to promote her "best-of-so-far" CD compilation and its companion biography both entitled Wayward Daughter. Eliza and her 11 musicians enjoyed playing together so much that an album release rapidly became both an ambition and an eventuality. They all got together again at RealWorld and Rockfield Studios under the production guidance of Jim Sutherland, and the result is at long last now available - and it bursts out with all the unbridled joy and devil-may-care energetic exuberance of their live shows.

It's inevitable that comparisons will be made with the massively successful Bellowhead - which was after all also a mighty 11-piece and a Big Machine. But I intend no charges of plagiarism, for Eliza's known as an uncompromising individual with her own personal vision, and any band which proudly boasts her leadership will be a very different animal from any other on the planet. And when you bear in mind the astounding spectrum of musics over which her tastes, talents and deep understanding range, you've every reason to expect an equally astounding range of musical and cultural influences to inform an album from her Wayward Band. Of course, the adjective Wayward may be taken by some less open-minded listeners as an indication of an inconsistency in terms of style and quality of the music the band produces, and certainly there's an occasionally maddening aspect to the diversity on display, an almost deliberately provocative wilfulness that's arguably only acceptable because Eliza's artistic integrity and profound commitment can be vouched for unconditionally. Having said all that, I still find much of Big Machine quite overwhelming even after several playthroughs, insomuchas there are sometimes almost too many ideas being thrown at once at the listener to be taken in, let alone assimilated or appreciated. It's an exhausting ride, especially at first. And given the spread of idioms paraded here, it's almost always going to be the case that not every track will appeal (there's still one, Eliza's own You Know Me, which features MC Dizraeli, that despite the passion of the writing has as yet refused to completely convince me).

Perhaps the finest reworking on the album is that of the traditional song I Wish That The Wars Were All Over, on which Eliza's joined by Irish chanteur Damien Dempsey (huh? maybe it sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does - and how!). And need I say, Eliza's on brilliant vocal form throughout the set (the above and The Sea being particularly impressive).There's also a storming party-style instrumental (Love Lane) which finds the Wayward Band up there on the dance floor with rockets firing. Happily, Eliza's own fiddle skills aren't submerged by the big-band, for she still gets the chance to show off properly, notably on Mrs. Dyer The Baby Farmer (the improvisatory prelude and cracking syncopated solo) and Devil In The Woman (another swirling, swinging solo). We've heard Great Grey Back before of course (a mix was included on Wayward Daughter), but the rest of Big Machine is new to Eliza's recorded catalogue. Three of the songs - Devil In The Woman, Fade And Fall (Love Not) and The Sea - emanate from the Manchester broadside ballad collections (of which Eliza recently spoke so eloquently on BBC Radio 4), and there's a pair of covers - Ewan MacColl's The Fitter's Song (from the 1959 Radio Ballad Song Of A Road) was recorded at the behest of Peggy Seeger, and here receives a brazen, fiery, driven performance that's an album highlight for certain, while Rory MacLeod's affectionate, jubilant Hug You Like A Mountain is now done as a duet with guest Teddy Thompson (though I marginally prefer Eliza's earlier version, on the 2008 Dreams Of Breathing Underwater album).

It may seem invidious to concentrate on the songs rather than the musical performances, but I ought by rights to at least namecheck the members of the band: Sam Sweeney, David Delarre, Saul Rose, Barn Stradling, Lucy Farrell, Beth Porter, Andrew Waite, Willy Molleson, Laurence Hunt, Nick Malcolm and Andrew "Yen-Yen" Toulouse. That should give you a good idea of the calibre of musicianship and the flavour of the band. And what a superbly punchy, feisty sound they make too, one that translates unexpectedly well to the recorded environment. When at their most persuasive and feisty, the Wayward Band is seriously irresistible, with Eliza riding aloft imperious and unassailable. And of course, her Epitaph will read "there is no weapon like death by custard"!… Which leaves me with just one final point to mention - I'd recommend you insist on purchasing the album in its deluxe edition, which appends a second CD containing much highly desirable extra material (demos and outtakes).

David Kidman