I must confess that Cat, our fearless editor-in-chief, handed me this CD and said, “You’ll like this, they’re fun”, or something to that effect. He knows my weird taste well enough that I could tell by the way he spoke something was a little different about this group. First indication of their sense of humor was the name of the group and album title: Folk Underground and Buried Things respectively. Right there I detect a smirk (a mischievous one, not a criminal one). I love musicians who smirk a bit. It’s a good indication that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Too much earnestness is the kiss of death for me. The instrumentation was another clue: along with the usual suspects (violin, mandolin, guitar, vocals) you’ll find all kinds of percussion, trumpet, trombone, saxes, steel drums, Hammond organ and “circus madness” among others. Clue three: statues posing with the band for the photo. This trio, known as Folk Underground, consists of Lorraine Garland (vocals, violin), Trevor Hartman (vocals, djembe, accordion, trumpet, piano, percussion), and Paul Score (vocals, guitar). The guest musicians will be named as we wander through the CD. ALL of the players are superb musicians.
The first track, “Lord Redfern’s Return”, starts out normally enough. It’scredited as “traditional….more or less”. Garland takes the reins on the melody and is joined by Adam Stemple (mandolin) and Matt Dawson (bagpipes). Hartman’s percussion is good and strong, driving the tune right into . . . the horn section. Trumpet and trombone player Earl E. Mammal blends the horns in beautifully with the drone of the pipes. You really have to concentrate to pick them out in the mix because the addition is very subtle, but it gives the tune some real body. The steel drum track does the same thing for the melody (Armitage Shanks on those steel drums). The last time the melody comes around, the Hammond organ (also played by Shanks) bulldozes its way into the scene like a drunk falling out of a bar, rolling around on the sidewalk trying to get his bearings. Smirks all around. And then there is that last note . . . (the first thing you’ll pick up on if your concentration is not solely on the music).
Halloween is coming up, so you can add “Folk Underground” to your list of seasonal favorites. It’s written by Neil Gaiman. The beginning sounds like it’s coming out of a 2-inch speaker buried in a coffin. Then the creepy things come to life with the full sound of the trio. The kids will love this one, with lyrics like “and they shift in their coffins, and toss in their beds, while the worms lick their shins, and crawl right through their heads”. Eeewwww. Grin.
Now for a bit of a quest in a tribal setting, mostly. “Going Wodwo”(words by Neil Gaiman, music by Trevor Hartman) is the tale of a man who’s off to find his soul in the woods. African style drumming and percussion with added players Dylan Hatch and Robin Adnan Anders, and bass playing by Adam Stemple, make it hard not to start your own quest. Eerie electronica adds to the atmosphere and firmly plants tongue in cheek, then some animal sounds by The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Shanks and Mammal to top it all off. I want to know if this guy ever comes back to tell the tale.
“Port of Amsterdam” by Jaques Brel begins with Garland’s smoky, slow vocal in Spanish. She turns over the song and the English to either Harman or Score for the remainder of the cut. (The vocals are not credited in the liner notes.) The arrangement of the tune takes on a distinctively Spanish treatment, complete with clapping by Armando, Richard, and Gorge. I’m not familiar enough with original productions of Jaques Brel to do any comparisons, but it’s a great arrangement and the lyrics are offbeat enough that any additional shenanigans are unnecessary.
“Idumea” and “City of the Damned” are grouped as one track, which works in terms of subject matter, but it’s hard to get a hold of the idea musically. “Idumea” is a moving traditional a cappella lament on death. It has the feel of processional when the percussion comes in (Anders, Shank, and Nougat), but it’s only sung once through — just long enough for you to get swallowed up by it in a serious and ritualistic way. I could have listened to a three minute version of it. Juxtapose that to the happy Sesame Street-like music in “City of the Damned” and the “come along with us to the City of the Damned” lyrics and I want to say “Hold on there, wait a minute!”. I like the song and it brings us back to the humor, but I wouldn’t have programmed it in this spot.
Next up is another traditional song called “Ramble Away”. It’s the story of the wayward guy who had a habit of one-night stands, leaving dear Nancy behind and pregnant. And when the son grows up he follows in his dad’s footsteps. Pretty normal traditional material, although I wonder if they added things in the lyrics. Some of the phrases seem a bit, well, not so traditional. But what do I know. It’s always been easy to pull the wool over my eyes. The arrangement is played in a straight away style — for now anyway.
The “Galbally Farmer/TID (Things in D)” medley is also a fairly straight ahead a cappella/instrumental combination. The lyrics to “Galbally Farmer”include things about more creepy, crawly things, continuing the theme of the album. “Things in D” is a jolly instrumental. But just when you think the music is going along in a “normal” way some big burly guys show up in the back of the hall having had one too many pints before belching out some vocals. Smirk.
Here’s something for you vampire fans: “Rue the Day”. If you’ve gotten tired of the English/Celtic traditional thing, you can start to swing with this one. A jazzy treatment is enhanced by Greg Hartman and Fred Fregary on saxophones, Dave Wolfe on bass and Brett Hartman on drums. Imagine that late night smoky bar where the clientele revels in their ghoulishness. The lyrics were originally published as “Vampyre” by Jane Yolen in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women, edited by Stephen Jones.
“Norwegian Dance from Hungary #1” is definitely a Norwegian dance from Hungary. A wonderful composition by Garland that truly speaks to both traditions and shows the connections between the two. Absolutely lovely. It’s also a nice spot for an instrumental piece and it shows off her compositional abilities.
The “underground” references resurface in “Our Station” by John Mann. The song tells of a secret club with a wide bunch of characters getting away from the world. Could even be some of those ghouls from “Rue the Day”.
And then “Flash Company”, a traditional song . . . where do they find this stuff? One of those burly guys shows up again to sing this one. Oh, just go listen.
Now for an old childhood favorite “Sweet Violets”. You might only remember bits and pieces of the words but now you can refresh your memory and sing them all. Garland, Hartman and Score have a fine talent for a capella singing and they give this simple song solidity with their confident vocals.
“Sea Wolf” is another sweet instrumental by Garland, supported grandly by Hartman’s percussion and Score’s guitar.
“The Butterfly Road” is a curious adventure by Neil Gaiman and Folk Underground. A deal gone bad, or a deal misrepresented, or a bad dream . . . “circus madness” ensues. Where’s the video? A couple of minutes past the end of the song the CD player is still reading track #14 . . . hmmmm. At first I thought it was a mastering error, then I thought maybe a hidden track lay ahead. By the time it was all over I was almost convinced the whole thing was purposeful. I sought a second opinion. He thought it was purposeful. Now that I’ve listened a third time . . . oh, enough already with the critical judgment, just let the thing play until it’s done. The big burly guys are smirking behind those pints again. I hope they get a gig with Folk Underground at the Green Man Pub soon — I’ll be there!
(Happyfun! Records, 2003)