"Harmonograph" is the second album by False Lights, purveyors of "folk rock for the 21st century". False Lights were formed in 2013 by two of the leading lights of the contemporary folk scene, Jim Moray and Sam Carter , both of whom will be well-known to readers of these pages.
False Lights' debut album "Salvor" was an absolute belter and one of my favourite albums of 2015 with its unique blend of traditional songs , guitar rock and electronica ,all played and sung impeccably.
The line-up for this second album has undergone some changes with Jim , Sam and violinist Tom Moore now being joined by melodeon player Archie Churchill-Moss , Barnaby Stradling on bass and Stuart Provan on drums.
"Harmonograph" was recorded over the summer of 2017 and contains nine "re-crafted" traditional songs ,plus one delightful new tune by Tom Moore ["The Ombudsman"].
The choice of songs is most interesting and ,if you will indulge me, I will look at each one in turn.
The opening song is the rousing "Babylon", a shapenote hymn which has been re-written to provide comment on recent political events in the UK and USA. It's certainly an epic track with Clash-like guitar, brass section and multi-vocal chorus. A brilliant opener to the album.
Like me, you may associate "Black Velvet Band" with The Dubliners ,but this transportation song dates way back to the 19th century. Here, Jim Moray has given it a new tune ,which came to him fully formed whilst driving! The result is a brooding, harmony-laden rock ballad ,quite far removed from The Dubliners' version.
Sam takes lead vocals on the cautionary tale of "William Glenn", a treacherous sea captain who was thrown overboard by his crew ,in order to save the ship. Sam's vocals really shine in this modern setting of a ballad learned from the great Nic Jones.
"Far In Distant Lands"is a beautiful shapenote hymnal from the Southern Hymnal of 1854 . False Lights' version is both haunting and serene,with gorgeous vocals floating over a shimmering musical backdrop.
In total contrast is "Captain Kidd", the tale of the reputed pirate William Kidd, which , after an acoustic beginning, is given the full False Lights folk-rock treatment to great effect, with crashing guitars , thundering drums and bass , and soaring violin. This is great stuff and this is probably my favourite track.
"Murder In The Red Barn" recounts the notorious murder of Maria Marten in 1827 by William Corder. This event was also the subject of another great folk-rock track -"The Murder Of Maria Marten" by Shirley Collins and The Albion Band on their classic "No Roses" album of 1971.
False Lights' version is sung from the point of view of the murderer and utilises two tunes by shapenote composer William Walker , as well as a great Byrds/Tom Petty-style guitar solo.
The most radical re-working of a traditional song here is Jim's version of "Serving Man Become A Queen" which careers along at punk-like velocity before a slower section which borrows the rather more traditional tune from "The New York Trader". A very different treatment but like Jim's other experiments, it works incredibly well.
Joan Baez recorded the Child Ballad "Henry Martin" on her debut album in 1960 but False Lights have taken this tale of a nautical Robin Hood to a different planet altogether. Beginning with exotic percussion by Laurence Hunt, this riff-heavy version has a jazz-rock middle section that reminds me of nothing less than King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man"! I must mention the drumming of Stuart Provan, which is amazing.
The closing track "Drink Old England Dry" was written at the time that Napoleon was threatening to invade England and "drink it dry". Other versions of the song refer to the Germans, the Spanish and the Russians but False Lights have re-written it to make it less antagonistic to our European cousins.
This jolly drinking song provides a suitably lively ending to what is a cracking second album from False Lights. "Harmonograph" is ,if anything, more ambitious than "Salvor" [and that is saying something!]. Although I am writing this review at the very dawn of 2018 , I have absolutely no doubt that this will turn out to be one of the Albums of the Year.
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