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Harp And A MonkeyHarp And A Monkey
Album: War Stories
Label: MoonrakerUK
Tracks: 10

Back in February this year, I saw Lancashire trio Harp & a Monkey live for the first time and was hugely impressed [ see review in FATEA Live Section]. Accordingly, I was very pleased to get to review this, their third album . The album is titled "War Stories" and is a collection of songs about the First World War. The release date of the album, 1st July 2016, coincides with the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in terrible loss of life.

Listening to this album for the first time was especially poignant for me as I did so whilst visiting the Somme recently. The experience of listening to this wonderful album in the area in which the battle took place is something that will stay with me for a long time.

When I saw Harp and a Monkey live, I was not aware that front man Martin Purdy is an internationally renowned author and expert on the First World War, but his knowledge of the subject clearly shines through on this superb collection of songs.

The album consists of a mixture [in equal measure] of original songs and popular songs and poems of the day which have been rearranged and rewritten by Martin and his fellow band members Simon Jones and Andy Smith. The arrangements feature the Harps’ eclectic mixture of banjo, glockenspiel, harp and electronica which I found so beguiling when I saw them live. The band also use archival voice samples to emphasise the human element of these stories of war.

The album begins with "The Banks Of Green Willow", an original song which shares its title with the well-known song by George Butterworth, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme.

"Soldier Soldier" is based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which was first put to music by the inimitable Peter Bellamy.

"Charlie Chaplin" is a popular song from the First World War which was written in support of the comic actor, who was derided in the Daily Mail for failing to volunteer to fight.

One of the most poignant songs is "Raise A Glass To Danny", a tribute to Daniel Laidlaw, "The Piper of Loos", who kept on playing his pipes during the battle, despite being twice wounded, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The song features spoken sections by Daniel himself and a segment of the tune that he played to inspire his comrades on the battlefield at Loos.

Archive recordings are also employed to great effect in "The Long,Long Trail" and "The Postman’s Song", in which Connie Noble from Rochdale tells the story of her father who was wounded in battle.

With such a wonderful selection of songs, it is difficult to pick a favourite but I would choose "Ghosts Round The Table", an eerie , haunting song about how the presence of fallen comrades is felt at an annual dinner held by an ever-diminishing number of survivors, even though they cannot be seen. The question is asked "Where have all the good men gone?". This really is a most affecting piece.

The album closes with "Flanders Shore", a reworking of the familiar "Flandyke Shore", which recounts a father’s feeling of duty in going to fight in the war, in order to save his family. Again,this is a particularly poignant song, based on an actual letter from a soldier to his daughter.

"War Stories" is an exemplary piece of work which absolutely succeeds in telling the stories of real people and the effect that war had on their lives. It is clearly extremely well researched but is not a dry piece of academia, on the contrary, it conveys a great sense of humanity and sincerity. On top of that, it also sounds superb, with some great tunes, inventive arrangements and fine singing.

Highly recommended.

Peter Cowley