Hoo boy, got a “fun” one here. Maybe for you, definitely for me: this review required a very different sort of thinking.
What it may not have required was 2 weeks off. But I’m keeping schtum about that. Never happened. And it definitely hasn’t cocked up my timetable for the next few weeks. Anyway, here’s John Renbourn’s “A Maid in Bedlam”. Have the fun that I tentatively promised in the first paragraph.
And it REALLY doesn’t help that, for this, most beleaguered of reviews, for just this one, the internet has no video for me, for you. wat.
I have to apologise for how late this review is, but I also want to try to explain why it’s late. A part of the reason for this is that I’m not sure that I’m the person to talk about this album. I know a bit about folk – well, in fairness, I’ve listened to enough – but straight up folk music, rather than folk metal or folk rock, I know a lot less aboutthe minutiae, the nitty gritty forms and style. Compare that to, say, pop-rock or glam metal. There’s much more I can think of to say about them specifcally, as genres, than pure folk. I mean… It’s folk.
But that, I can overcome, with grace and sheer arrogance, but the real reason why I’ve had trouble is that this album falls outside of my purview. You see, I laid this out before, in one of my earliest posts, but for posterity I’ll say it again – these albums that I review, I try to do so because they’re somehow important, or at least interesting albums that I haven’t listened to before. They’re new to me, and I want to give my fresh, untainted opinion on them. And while I may not always succeed, I like to imagine that I bring something new to the table because of it.
But I can’t with this album. I can’t because I’m actually highly familiar with this album. I didn’t realise until I’d listened – and it’s been on my list for months – that this is an album that I’ve heard a lot of at home.
So, I can’t try and talk about “A Maid in Bedlam” like I would a bunch of other albums. I can’t give a fresh opinion of the songs, because I’ve been listening to them for years.
So what can I do?
It’s interesting talking about folk music, because there are a lot of things that I just can’t really talk about; this, in turn, is because folk music is the most incestuous covers industry ever. Seriously. Even more than those remix albums you get. More than compilation albums. Hell, I alone have two (maybe three) versions of “Death and the Lady”, four versions of “John Barleycorn”, and as many of “Reynardine”. And while, from song to song, there are significant changes – such as Renbourn’s interplay of female and male vocals on “Death…” and the instruments on “John Barleycorn” that I will come to later – they are still the same song.
I can’t comment on the structure of the songs, or the topic, or the lyrics. They were all laid down centuries ago, by the forefathers and forefathers before them of ancient demigods. Or some music nerd in a pub, back in the 19th century, who nailed them into a little paper book. One or the other. The point is; musicians can hardly change them*, and so I can hardly criticise them.
One of the interesting changes that Renbourn has made though… I want you to look at the line-up here.
- John Renbourn – guitars, vocals
- Tony Roberts – vocals, flute, recorders, oboe, piccolo
- Jacqui McShee – vocals
- Sue Draheim – fiddle, vocals
- Keshav Sathe – tabla, finger cymbals
One of these things is not like the others. Yeah, I mean really – who uses a piccolo these days?
But seriously, the incorporation of a tabla – a traditional indian instrument – into an album of traditional English songs is a very very smart choice, and probably one that was a lot/even more controversial and/or surprising in its heyday of 1977. I, however, think it’s a brilliant/terrible idea. In my opinion as an asshat-on-the-internet/part-time-internet-reviewer, am solely qualified to make such assessments.
[Still no videos. This is going to be a picture heavy review.]
Multiple choice sentence jokes aside, the inclusion of the tabla is, I think, one of the things that makes this album different, and adds its own flavour and style to the music. I’d been thinking for a while before I saw that fact on the wiki that there was something eerie and sinister in their interpretation of “John Barleycorn”.
Which of course there should be – it’s about the ritualisation of the symbolic murder of the anthropomorphic personification of barley. For personal profit, no less! If that song isn’t designed to scare the children, I don’t know what is.** And the eerieness spreads to other songs, such as “Death and the Lady” a tragedy/sex scandal in the making including the grim reaper himself, and “A Maid in Bedlam” itself. I have to say, though, “Reynardine” is my favourite in this regard, as compared to the imposing and almost threatening other versions I’ve heard, it just sounds silly. Possibly unintentionally.
As mentioned earlier, I alone have about ten copies of these songs, and the ones I don’t are mainly orchestral songs – which kind of exempts them, in a way, from being widely renowned. Reels can only be learned by musicians; everyone can sing along with “Tam Lin”. So the popularity of those songs remains limited, but the rest are pretty much archetypal folk songs; well known, and full of sex, death, cruelty and madness.
So Renbourn’s formed what is essentially a folk supergroup – with the exception of the tabla player, of whom I know nothing, the rest seem to be all pretty well know, and even Keshav Sathe has a wiki – and performed and recorded versions of a number of the most widely played folk songs around. From this, it looks a lot like John Renbourn (of “The John Renbourn Group”) had a very specific vision for this album.
What that vision was is a little unclear to me, but that may stem from my relative ignorance of folk. But what I can tell you is that it seems to work. It’s quite a mellow album, even by folk standards – especially modern folk – but I feel that in some ways that serves to emphasise the individual instruments. It doesn’t grab, this album; it doesn’t instantly tug at your heartstrings.
No, it waits ’til later that night, and gently taps on your window, beckoning. Isn’t that fun?
I’m sorry this is so very, very late. I was planning to make a snide remark about how I won’t do this again until next time, but 2 weeks late is too much, even for me. I’ll just say I slept in.
* Though that isn’t to say that they can’t – just look at
** I don’t know if I mentioned this in my “Traffic” review, but this song terried me as a kid. Just saying.