"That's an acoustic bass!" I thought as the first chords of 'High Germany' rang out, not surprisingly because that's Thom Ashworth's lead instrument. I have huge admiration for musicians who are prepared to do something different, especially with a debut album, because it either runs the risk of typecasting them or it differentiates their music. So to hear an album with the bass guitar used as its main instrument, played so beautifully in accompaniment to one of the best new voices in folk music was both a surprise and a joy.
The second song 'Pathfinding' puts in a nutshell why this album really works. Less than 3 minutes long, a chunky bass rhythm and harmonics drives the song and provides the backdrop to Ashworth's traditional folk voice and backing vocals, accompanied by cleverly phrased percussion, violin for the high end, and clarinet in a hugely effective supporting role. The concluding acapella flourish would not be out of place on a Steeleye Span album. Not remotely derivative, Head Canon might well be breaking new ground.
"Poverty Knock" further reinforces the album's folk credentials, with the attention drawn more to the storytelling quality of Ashworth's lyrics. Folk music frequently delivers more accuracy to social history than any history book, and a successful folk song will carry its audience along with a rattling good chorus. This song is heartfelt, well researched, and it works on every level.
"Look to Windward" is simply gorgeous, the stand out track on the album for me. A story beautifully told that leaves the listener in no doubt that they are listening to a rising star. Comparisons will be drawn with Martin Carthy's vocal style, and at times the instrumentation have a ring of an early John Martyn album. Head Canon is fresh and innovative throughout.
I've had a number of conversations recently about the resurgence of British Folk Music. For many it never went away, but It is probably the case that traditional folk songs have been lost among the myriad new styles The good work continues with an acapella rendition of Ewan MacColl's 'Exile', about Irish migrant labourers - the album's 'pause for breath'. To discover an album where most of the songs are intelligent, sensitive re-workings of traditional songs shows that folk music is alive and well. 'Ratcliffe Highway' is presented as a powerful folk-rock song with fiddle and electric guitar taking centre stage, followed in similar genre by the foot-tapping 'Derry Gaol' where crisp bass guitar chords and melodies return to the surface.
The pace slows again with 'Crossing the Water' and some stunning harmonic bass notes Gregorian backing vocals. The song builds beautifully weaving in such lyrical gems as "my skin's turned to paper and my blood to ink" and "if no man is an island then keep me afloat". I first heard 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest' by Dick Gaughan and until now had not found a version to rival it - Ashworth seems entirely comfortable blending the bleak with the warm.
'John Barleycorn' was the song that first alerted me to Thom Ashworth's music. It bounces along in true folk-rock style before 'The City And The Tower' slows the pace again and brings the album to a close . Head Canon is unafraid, unashamedly a folk album, blending the new and innovative with the traditional, and I get the feeling that followers of folk music will be talking about it decades from now.
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