Steeleye Span’s Dodgy Bastards

imageI’m just on my third listen to Steeleye Span’s Dodgy Bastards. This latest offering from a band I’ve loved since their earliest albums is a mixed bag. Fortunately, the contents are largely on the side of excellence. There is very little here that doesn’t work for me, but what doesn’t work for me really doesn’t.

Anytime a new release comes with a full set of beautifully detailed liner notes and lyrics to the Child Ballads recorded, it’s a happy moment. Something bright and beautiful went out of recorded music when the smaller and more portable formats made liner notes largely extraneous. And it was nice to have the references so well laid out.

The band is as tight as it ever was, but I would have been surprised had they not been, with the remaining core of Liam Genocky, Rick Kemp and the incomparable Maddy Prior in place. The rhythm section is brilliant. Genocky has lost nothing to the years; he’s as solid as a rock holding down the band’s intricate rhythms, and Rick Kemp manages to produce both thunder and groove on the bass. Jessie May Smart has a light, gorgeous touch on the fiddle, and the guitars and mandolin are seamlessly integrated.

At the core of anything from Steeleye, though, are those vocals. Dodgy Bastards has them in almost perfect form: Maddy anchors almost every song, with the supporting vocals providing both a bed and a surround. The effect is crisp, clear and gorgeous. This is what I expect from Steeleye, and always have. They don’t disappoint here.

I’ve got some standouts. The interesting take on “Cruel Sister”, “Cruel Brother”, concerns a girl who accepts a marriage proposal from a knight who neglected to ask her brother – the brother retaliates with an honour killing. It features some classic Steeleye arrangement, including a jump in the rhythm and dynamics. It has a companion piece in the form of “Two Sisters”, which didn’t appeal to me nearly as much. There’s a little too much of the instruments in this particular arrangement, with the result that the story told by the lyric gets swamped and buried. Too much going on, and not enough of Maddy’s voice.

The title track, a superb instrumental, is a moment of up tempo joy, in the best tradition of electrified folk-rock. Everything about it works; even with your eyes closed, you’ll envision Maddy dancing. This is some of the best and purest Steeleye imaginable.

“Johnnie Armstrong” is a superb piece of bardic music, a border ballad about murder and betrayal. This has the feel of classic Steeleye about it – the ring of purest gold.

Now we come to what, for me, is the album’s absolute misfire: The updated cover of “Boys Of Bedlam”, including a rap verse rapped (not sung) by Julian Littman. While I totally get the desire to update a classic, my strong feeling is that if what you’re bringing to the original doesn’t expand it well, don’t do it. There are traditional songs that can be taken in different directions successfully, but this isn’t one of them. This version has lost its darkness, its urgency, and its potency. Worse, it’s lost its subtlety and ominous feel. I’ll stick with the original Steeleye version for this one.

“Bad Bones”, on the other hand, is an original by Julian Littman, and it works. The lyric is a manic and very entertaining cross between Richard Thompson’s “I Feel So Good” and Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy”. The singer is not anyone you want to hang with. A kickass little song.

And “The Lofty Tall Ship/Shallow Brown” is fantastic. It’s a take on the classic “Henry Martin”, and unlike the rest of the album, it has Maddy’s voice right there, with a terrifying, stripped-down instrumentation weaving like a salt wind around the vocal. After the ominous feel of “Lofty Tall Ships”, her voice cuts straight to the heart and then breaks it with the segue into “Shallow Ground.” This may be my favourite piece on the album. It’s completely exquisite.

All told, Dodgy Bastards provides us with a finely detailed look and listen at what one of our favourite and most long-lived bands is doing now.

(Park Records, 2013)

Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between. But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.

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