It’s always been quite difficult to get a handle on The Memory Band, which has hitherto existed more as a concept than as an actual performing entity. It’s the brainchild of Stephen Cracknell, a producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist with a deep interest in traditional music and a self-imposed mission to approach the meaningful retelling or reworking of traditional sources in a brave and radical yet somehow strangely natural manner. Even if it involves a bit of a challenge for the listener at first.
A Fair Field is the fifth Memory Band release, and mostly verges on chamber-folk and jazz-flavoured indie in its stylings rather than the more pronounced folk-psych trappings of its predecessors. Opening track The Bold Grenadier sets the scene with a sample from a 1954 field recording made by Peter Kennedy of Vashti Vincent reminiscing on her father purchasing a song from a ballad seller – which may well have been this song – before launching into a chamber-ensemble performance of Richard Rodney Bennett’s lyrical arrangement of The Bold Grenadier itself. The lyrical mood is interrupted by Children Of The Stones, an original composition by Liam Bailey and Cracknell inspired by the Avebury stone circle and the TV series of that name. The drifting folk-melody of Against Our Laws Contrary comes and goes within the ambient textures, wistfully perhaps representing a half-recalled experience. On Our Side is an almost cheery paean to life in the fresh air, one of charming simplicity by four voices to a chirpy pop-inflected backing. The Mason And The Lark is a more repetitively configured piece, which incorporates amongst its insistent string textures and piano-based meanderings a reading of a part of Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts whose thesis is central to Cracknell’s vision. By The Truth Of My Right Hand begins with a reading of part of The Vision Of Piers Plowman set against a spiky jazz double bass improvisation before settling down (illogically) into a more straightforward rendition of the Willie O’ Winsbury melody played on cello, piano and double bass. Up The Common is a brief jazzy double bass-led shuffle interlude leading on to the final pair of instrumental tracks, Starlight and A Postcard For Toppy And Lou, the latter bringing the album full circle to a chamber-folk evocation of the mystery and wonder of the landscape.
Much of the sound of this album is characterised by the primary instrumental complement of double-bass (Olie Brice), cello (Lucy Railton), violin (Rob Spriggs) and piano (Fred Thomas), over which ride occasional voices (Liam Bailey, Nancy Wallace, Helene Bradley, Hannah Caughlin) with embellishments from Cracknell himself on guitar, dulcimer, electric and electronic pianos and reed organ. In spite of its overall musical accessibility, though, A Fair Field proves a touch impenetrable – like getting lost in a field of high-growing corn, maybe – and a slightly thorny prospect in general, with a cryptic message that’s not always readily deciphered.
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