That year end top ten list is filling up nicely, and here’s another British contender that I’m sure will be on it. Brighton-based, The Mountain Firework Company do as fine a job as anyone (either side of the Atlantic) in taking that bluegrass sound and making it totally relevant for the early 21st century. Traditional instrumentation (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitars and the added beef from a drum kit) is combined with that dark thread of subject matter that runs direct from old Appalachian folk song right up to modern country noir.
The twist is that even as the splendidly mournful voice of Gareth McGahan sings of hangings at the crossroads, or of his body being lowered into the cold, dark ground, there remains no doubt that he is singing about experiences and states of mind that exist just as much today as they did in old Appalachia. The song about the hanging at the crossroads, for example, hinges on the point that the wrong man got hanged for a murder and the devil won’t come down and claim his soul, because he’s “on his way to play his tricks on the wicked hearts of men”. You only have to consider the case of the woman who attracted hysterical vilification for putting a cat in a wheelie bin to realise how a mob will still happily latch onto an appropriate victim to enjoy the thrill of righteous indignation.
As for McGahan’s love songs, there’s a desperate obsession in them that is unsettling. He’s laying his emotional vulnerability out for all to see, but there’s a dark sense that this emotion could easily flip over into something destructive. The desperation in the lyric to Daylight Robbery maybe gives you a flavour of this: “I want your eyes, that pretty face, I want your fists babe, give me all the rage…give back all the hate babe, give back what you took, I want it rough, I just can’t get enough”. The aching tenderness in his voice and the glints of dark humour suggest that nothing too bad will happen, but he’s certainly tapping into some dark undercurrents.
If the lyrical content is compelling, then the music these guys make matches that quality every step of the way. All four other band members (Grant Allardyce, Simon Russell, Mike Simmonds, Ewan Wallace) contribute warm harmonising vocals, and the beauty of their playing reaches sublime heights. When the banjo is in the foreground they sound very much like a bluegrass band but there are quietly beautiful instrumental passages where you realise that these guys are so good, they could probably play pretty much anything. Bluegrass usually focuses on speed and precision, but this band is prepared to slow things right down and to conjure something beautifully atmospheric from the interplay of their instruments. This is music of rich depth, incredibly rewarding to get into, and easily one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.
Add a Comment