Tim Jones & The Dark LanternsTim Jones & The Dark Lanterns
Album: St. Giles' Bowl
Label: Cotton Mill
Tracks: 12

Tim and his merry band are steeped in the traditional music of the UK, and clearly enjoy playing and creating their own likeable, rough'n'ready, ever-so-slightly ramshackle take on that music, entirely without pretension and genially committed to the cause. The band's repertoire consists almost entirely of original songs from Tim's own pen; their subject matter is forged from ageless, time-honoured historical themes and characters and philosophies. Tim's language is straightforward and commonly accessible, and yet his expression of ideas can also be quite cryptic at times - thoughtfully and powerfully so, as on Orpheus, No More A Darkness and the reflective Iron & Smoke. A rootlessness and restlessness of spirit pervades many of Tim's songs too, sometimes accompanied by a justified anger (One Of A Thousand Men) or an uneasy, distorted romanticism (the disturbing ballad-like Her Long Red Hair). There's also a distinct preoccupation with morbidity where it influences the spirit of place (Gallows Ground). On several songs, the spirit of place is evoked in a more literal sense where they trade heavily on specific local-historical associations, revelling in their authentic "London edgelands" settings. For instance, the St Giles Bowl of the album's title refers to the final cup of ale that was provided for the condemned at St Giles church (en route from Newgate Prison and before going to be hanged at Tyburn); the imbibing of said liquid is reflected in the song's woozy swaying, waltzing gait. Harringay Races is a fun little a cappella ditty in the style of a popular broadside, while Tim's dramatic address to Robinson sees themes, locations and experiences converging. A couple of songs towards the end of the disc don't quite seem to fit: the reminiscence of Far Normandy, for all its plaintive simplicity of utterance feels unfinished, while Westminster is a jolly, if rather obvious, jibe at politicians, which could almost have been written at any time or age.

Having thus far concentrated on the lyrics, I must mention the musical settings, which are clearly carefully configured yet at the same time feel genuinely spontaneous. There's a myriad of early-70s prog/alt/acid and revival-folk influences, but nothing sounds forced. From the banjo-rambling country-ballad-style of No More A Darkness to the Steeleye-like Her Long Red Hair via the communal-singalong Strangelies/ISB feel of Gallows Ground and the early-Fairport folk-rock vibe of Orpheus, each track maintains a credible and natural groove. The blend of vocals behind Tim's own charismatic lead is always effective too, with good use made of the contrasts between the voices of Melissa Smith, Ted Kemp, Robin Timmis and James Farrimond. The instrumental complement (banjo, violin, mandolin, melodeon, tin whistle, uke, guitar, glockenspiel, bass, percussion) is both restrained and sensibly textured where appropriate. After listening to the album a few times I've just managed to read the accompanying press release! It candidly states that "the album was recorded and mixed in a week at a studio on a dairy farm in Pembrokeshire with the aim of capturing something of the spontaneous and rough feel of an English Basement Tapes, or early Fairport Convention recordings", and I can hear exactly what the writer means by the first of those comparisons - it feels just like that, and I love it, even if the overall impact is at times just a little too lo-fi and the drum sound is somewhat muffled and remote. A little more crispness of presence might not have gone amiss perhaps. For there are subtleties in the instrumental texture, which the mild and unassuming nature of the recording manages sometimes to understate, but the element of almost innocent simplicity in the band's musical expression is still all the more welcome when, as here, the lyrics are so important.

Finally, a word of praise for the CD's artwork, which was hand-cut onto lino, printed and produced by Laura Smyth - this is another extremely attractive feature of the whole package.

David Kidman