You might say Seth Lakeman has the best of both worlds. This Devon-based songwriter is both accessible enough to snare mainstream appeal, and authentically antiquated enough to earn the loyalty of die-hard folksters. But for this, his eighth solo release, the tenacious bard has tried something a little different. Recruiting the aid of legendary producer Ethan Johns and emerging folk trio Wildwood Kin, Lakeman moves away from his earlier folk-rock leanings into an almost hymnal sound with a touch of the Deep South spiritual.
‘Ballads of the Broken Few’ showcases Lakeman at his most intimate. Like 2011’s ‘Tales From The Barrel House’ he embraces a central theme, this time that of the travelling balladeer. Gone are the foot-stomping hoedowns that made Lakeman such a folk festival stalwart, replaced by sparse and tender serenades.
Lakeman’s familiar violin is the record’s bedrock, but forgoes its youthful vigour in favour of gentle lingering swells. Like an old friend suddenly grown frail, and just as heart-wrenching. Tracks like ‘Whenever I’m Home’ will break your heart with their lonely violin and soulful vocals. Like dirges drifting over the nightscape of some turn-of-the-century poor quarter. Scant, subtle, with plenty breathing room for Wildwood Kin to work their magic.
Wildwood Kin are the album’s masterstroke. The Exeter all-female trio provide the album’s mesmerising harmonies, and elevate the sound from sublime to downright spine-tingling. They coo like songbirds on ‘Anna Lee’, wail like sirens on the hard-hitting ‘Innocent Child’, and channel the finest Fleetwood Mac for the single-worthy ‘Meet Me In The Twilight’. If Lakeman is the travelling songsmith, then Wildwood Kin are the nightingales hidden up his sleeves.
The album carries on Lakeman’s tradition of unusual recording locations. After previous sessions in churches, forges and copper mines, ‘Ballads’ was recorded in the ambience of a Jacobean manor. Each track was recorded live in the manor’s great hall, giving the album a brilliantly ‘captured’ feel to it. With flowing spontaneity and home-spun percussion of mostly stomps and claps, it’s like a Cecil Sharp recording of some long-lost folk legend.
Indeed, the only real electric element to the album is Johns’ addition of a background blues guitar, a rare foray into distortion for the notoriously luddite Lakeman. Heard most prominently in the title track, this grittiness doesn’t interfere with the antiquated aesthetic so much as give a rusty, chaotic edge.
There’s no denying that some will miss Lakeman’s usual rambunctious fiddle-work. But with seven albums worth of toe-tappers to set the live crowd a-jigging, perhaps Lakeman has earned a more sombre release. Its genius is its restraint – so many of the tracks threaten to burst into fist-pumping folk-anthems, but they always stay tantalisingly ethereal. With its hypnotic harmonies and quiet gravity, ‘Ballads’ may be Lakeman’s most ambitious release yet. It’s surely his most delicate.
‘Ballads of The Broken Few’ is available now on Cooking Vinyl Records
This Seth Lakeman article was written by Matt George Lovett, a GIGsoup contributor