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The Backyard BuskersThe Backyard Buskers
Album: 10 Of Your 5 A Day
Label: Vegetable Mix Recordings
Tracks: 10

This Sheffield-based trio impresses at once with its idiomatic, enthusiastic and healthily well-drilled take on Americana, which cheerfully encompasses old-time, English and American folk, country and a smidgen of blues and rock’n’roll. From the outset, their singularly accomplished vocal work (both individually and harmonising) marks them out, then when they pick up their instruments you realise that here’s three musicians who really know their craft too.

It comes as a surprise to learn that they come from vastly different cultural backgrounds (stand-up, indie-pop and luthier by previous calling), Jane Foggin (Appalachian dulcimer and banjo), Kathy Cookson (guitar and mandolin) and Richard Pointer (harmonica, guitar and percussion) can together deliver a full, rounded accompaniment that’s both capable of light and shade and displaying considerable inner sensitivity, all according to the demands of individual songs. They may not be flash virtuosi, but that’s not what this music needs; there’s no lazy or dull picking, and nowhere does the listener feel shortchanged by their musicianship. They treat the music with due respect, and on this, their debut full-length CD, they complement their keen arrangements of five traditional (or near-as-dammit) pieces with five original compositions by the three band members. Tho’ with some of the latter (like the gospel-flavoured opener Shadow Of The Cross and the ballad-like Tailor’s Daughter), you’d be hard put to tell they ain’t authentic and true traditional…

In common with their skilled arrangements of the “real” traditional items (Boats On The Water and Johnson Boys probably the pick of the bunch), the Buskers display an uncommon intelligence in the distribution and integration of parts, resulting in a constantly believable texture and balance – in other words, it’s not all just thrown together. While as far as vocal expertise is concerned, the Buskers score loads of brownie points in having three superb singers, who can also blend absolutely brilliantly in three-part harmony; their finely judged a cappella rendition of Piney Mountains is a disc highlight for sure. It’s good too that the Buskers don’t try to put on fake American accents when singing – they sing straight but with evident commitment; only lacking the last ultra-rough-hewn edges or inflections (or patois) on items like Work Camp (they make a good fist but it doesn’t quite punch home).

These folks know how to communicate their love of the music, and they clearly enjoy doing so. The at times slightly zany demeanour of the band’s celebrated stage act is represented on the CD by Weevily Wheat; it’s all great fun, but it’s a bit too sheepish to get started, and the introductory ovine overdose kinda spoils the flow of the record!

As far as style and influences are concerned, testimonials on the band’s flyer namecheck Carter Family, Gillian Welch and Hazel Dickens – I can hear those role-models for sure – but also Johnny Cash and Neil Young (not so much in evidence here), which points towards the healthy mix they achieve on their perennially entertaining stage appearances. Here on record they give a splendid account of themselves nevertheless. They may not have quite the rip-roaring to-the-manner-born hillbilly authenticity of (say) crack Stateside outfits like the Foghorn String Band, but they’re actually darned close and pretty much the next best thing on these shores.

David Kidman