Bellowhead - Hedonism
Review by Jack Foley
BELLOWHEAD’S latest album, Hedonism is – like its creators suggest – a delirious amalgam of schooled, focused musicianship and uproarious, anarchic abandon.
It boasts the usual mix of folk, rock, world, jazz, classical and music hall, as well as a consistently upbeat spirit, and comes backed with the production values of John Leckie (of The Stone Roses and Radiohead fame).
As ever, co-founders John Spiers (melodeon, concertina) and Jon Boden (vocals, fiddle) assume song-writing duties, but they never lose sight of their fellow collaborators: an 11-piece big band that fuses an exceptional amount of individual musical talent into something as unique as they can muster, and as uplifting.
Recorded almost entirely live in under a week at the famous Abbey Road Studios, the album shifts along at a cracking pace, taking in all manner of styles – from classic to modern. It’s not always successful and leans more towards the folk movement, but there will almost certainly be something for everyone to enjoy contained within.
Hence, album opener New York Girls unfolds amid furious fiddle and flute arrangements, before breaking into a raucous polka that sounds like the sort of party track that ought to be played on a ship sometime in the distant past, below decks.
A Begging I Will Go, meanwhile, combines 17th Century folk elements with echoes of ska, Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft and a Louisiana jug band. It’s no small achievement and disarmingly addictive, but evidence of the more anarchic spirit of the band.
Cross-Eyed And Chinless is a fun fusion of jolly fiddles and horns that flirts outrageously with a “what shall we do with the drunken sailor” vibe, and is one of several instrumentals, while Broomfield Hill recalls yonder English pastures early on and an ambitious, cinematic element that eventually gives rise to another rollicking tale that positively asserts that the “finest month in all the year is the very merry month of May”. Again, it’s impossibly addictive.
The tale itself, meanwhile, is closely related to the ‘outlandish knight’ stories depicted in ancient cave drawings, while the tune is from Bogie’s Bonny Belle and features English bagpipes, while the chorus is borrowed from a verse in a Robin Hood ballad.
The folk is swapped for a more playful form of jazz on the AL Lloyd inspired The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid, which provides a refreshingly tough female central character,
While the breadth of the album’s ambition is once again underlined on the grubby dockside poetry of Brel’s Amsterdam and its immediate follow-up, the venerable Child Ballad, Cold Blows The Wind, where sublime brass creates an atmosphere of ecstatic mourning. Both are consistently intriguing, if only to see how Bellowhead merge classic standards with modern sensibilities, in their own inimitable style.
The fiddles and violins return for the uproarious ditty Parson’s Farewell, which should get your feet tip-tapping along with giddy abandon, before Bellowhead really let go for the totally anarchic folk-rock of Little Sally Racket – the one time where, arguably, they lose control. It’s probably the worst song on the LP, but equally the most fun to record given its shambolic tendencies.
Fortunately, the album ends on a high with Yarmouth Town, another jolly fusion of folk, rock and jazz that moves along at a brisk, breezy pace. It means that you’ll arrive at the end of your journey in breathless fashion, utterly thrilled by the adventurous nature of what’s come before.
Bellowhead have done what they set out to in that they’ve delivered a diverse, eclectic and utterly unique collection of songs that only looks set to enhance their brilliant reputation. You may not like everything they do, but you will almost definitely have a good time on more than one occasion while listening to this joyous album.
Download picks: New York Girls, Cross-Eyed And Chinless, Yarmouth Town, Broomfield Hill, Parson’s Farewell