The title of this, Seth's eighth studio album, will of course be familiar, since last year its original incarnation attained Top 20 status. It marked a change of direction for Seth in that it boldly shifted the musical axis away just a bit from folk and more onto soulful Americana - almost certainly due to the presence of young female Devon trio Wildwood Kin and legendary multi-instrumentalist producer Ethan Johns. All the while, though, it retained - in spaced - Seth's own trademarks (his wild, gritty energy and keen sense of spirit of place).
Seth and his collaborators here conjure a compelling new set of tough original songs that throb and stomp, while resonating with the very essence of tradition, yet at the same time provide a degree of thoughtful introspection. while Seth exhibits a control and reining-in of his performance that coheres with a similar discipline that's been increasingly present in his songwriting for a while now. The primitive folk-energy of the more spiritual-sounding songs, especially Innocent Child and Seth's reworkings of the broadsides Stranger and Willow Tree, is mesmeric and captivating, and the raw material is treated with an economy of expression that respects rather than constrains the essential storytelling that's always been Seth's strength. His excellent cover of Anna Lee (the Laurelyn Dossett song that originated on Levon Helm's fine Dirt Farmer album) is a case in point here. He also makes a very good case for Harry Clifton's anthemic morality tract Pulling Hard Against The Stream, even while abandoning its usual melody, and rescues his own affecting Whenever I'm Home from a charge of potential sentimentality, commendably sensitively managed. It goes without saying that Seth's swooping, diving, aching droning fiddle playing is as unmistakable as ever, and he makes a comparable effect when he switches to gutbucket electric guitar, as on the haunting, pounding title song. Moreover, the acute dynamism of Seth's musical presence is well matched by Wildwood Kin's forthright, if slightly sweet, gospel-inspired harmonies.
Ballads Of The Broken Few is now being reissued in order to coincide with Seth's current guest membership of Robert Plant's Sensational Space Shifters band, on whose November tour he will also be performing the opening support set. The special atmosphere of the album's original 11 tracks is carried on into the reissue's five bonus tracks, which it turns out were recorded during the original album sessions. Although they exhibit an undeniable consistency of sound and musical approach, I can't escape the feeling that a couple of them have the air of the cutting-room floor, but they're all worth having and can be seen to complete the picture of a powerful and productive phase in Seth's musical development. Episodic penultimate track Wake Up is a highlight of this bonus batch, along with the impassioned a cappella closing spiritual Bury Me Deep. Compositional credits for the bonus tracks weren't available, but I think we can safely assume they're all Seth's own work.
|Soft Machine: Seven||Ian Wallace: Ian Wallace|
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