When I last wrote of Sam Lee here, I used words I thought I would use again in this review of his latest release – ‘baritone’; ‘sonorous’ – so I just have, and obviously to describe his wonderful folk vocal. In his previous Ground of its Own, Lee married this with traditional folk songs and modern musical affectations, usually electronic, and some dissonance in the production to offset and make ‘new’ the beauty of folk singing and melody.
This is exactly the multi-layering on this set of songs Lee has researched and found within the gypsy and traveling communities in the UK as well as others from much farther afield geographically and culturally. I think there is far less of that dissonance on this album, though the modern patternings are more intense, as on superb opener Jonny O the Brine where the tabla and jazz trumpet are powerful over-rides. Second Bonny Bunch of Roses begins with a scratched operatic recording before the perfect low tone of Lee’s vocal brings in the beautiful song, finger-plucked acoustic guitar in the background, flute rising from the distance as the layers build which will include fiddle and a re-emergence of that operatic recording: it is a jamboree of eclectic sounds.
Third Blackbird is simply gorgeous as a song and vocal. It is again enhanced, this time by crashing cymbals, piano strikes and banjo plucks and horn accompaniments, also building. I guess the ‘traditional folk’ purists would argue that the core song gets lost in this musical modernity; those of us who like the amalgam of such production exploration with folk melody accept the combining. The ‘true’ purists are, presumably, those from whom Lee has learnt these actual songs, and one also presumes they accept the re-workings. As a folk archaeologist, Lee is discovering these songs from a source that might not manage to secure them through the oral tradition as well as he can in this recorded permanence. As if to remind of the discovering, fourth Lord Gregory begins with a sample of recorded interview as Lee finds out about this song – a song wrapped in gorgeous brass and vocal support as it progresses.
One of the more energetic renditions on the album is ninth Willy O where tabla again drives the beat, cymbals crash once more, whistles and Jews harp plant authenticities, fiddles create filmscore-like tensions, and other orchestrations swell. This is followed by Airdog where just voice and piano begin slowly to set a contrasting tempo, though the melody and voice beautiful again, and when the build comes, it is like so much else on this album – gorgeous - as I have already stated and will do once more as I think this single word genuinely articulates the beautiful whole, and yet again when this is followed by the [g-word here] Lovely Molly with Lee and choir coalescing in pure folk beauty.