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Steeleye Span Steeleye Span
Album: Dodgy Bastards
Label: Park
Tracks: 12
Website: http://steeleyespan.org.uk

Right from the off, it's clear that this album is a classic. Maddy Prior's voice rings out, clear as ever, on the opening number 'Cruel Brother', an eight-minute prog-folk opera, to leads us into trademark vocal harmonies. A story of love, lies and honour killing; the story is propelled into the 21st century relevance by Prior's intelligent delivery. The piece moves up through time signatures, then a change of pace as Prior's chilling vocal is set against Jessie May Smart's double tracked fiddle, before a soaring crescendo.

Many of these songs are familiar, but re-imagined. 'Boys of Bedlam', sung with anger and passion by Julian Littman is completely unlike the gentle reading on 'Pleased to See the King'. It's now re-invented as a muscular rocker complete with a spoken word section (by Alex Kemp). Littman makes a very convincing deranged lunatic. Credit must also be given to the rhythm section of Rick Kemp (a super bass breakdown at the end of this number), and drummer Liam Genockey, whose evocative fills carry the narrative, imparting a sense of urgency and desperation. John Spiers adds distinctive melodeon flourishes and the band rock out in an eastern European groove.

Material is drawn mostly from traditional sources, principally the collection published between 1182 and 1898 by American scholar Frances James Child. It is humbling to realise how many of the tragedies that afflict the world today have been played out in these islands over the last 1000 years. Those that study history are doomed to watch others repeat it. Smart takes over on lead vocals, on the evocative 'Brown Robyn's Confession', arranged by her and based on a Child ballad. Her voice is clear and pure, over Prior's counter melody.

The title track 'Dodgy Bastards' by Sinclair, a jig with neo-classical flavour, sets Smart's fiddle arpeggios and Littman's mandolin against his own electric guitar, all over a thunderous backing. 'Gulliver, Gentle and Rosemary', an up-temp version of a sorrowful tale, shows that the band has not lost its ear for the pop hooks hidden in these old tunes. Elsewhere Prior is in soulful mode, as in the beautiful 'All Things are Quite Silent' and the mournful reading of 'Shallow Brown' that closes the album.

If the album has a fault it is that it is too long (at 72 minutes) and some of the tracks are too short, these ideas need to be developed over ten minutes plus. All in all, a testament to the enduring creativity of this remarkable band.

On top form, touring at present, and well worth catching live.

Laura Thomas