Sam Lee – Ground of its Own

Album Review | The Nest Collective | Review by Kev Boyd | Stars: 5/5

Now that the dust has just about settled on Ground of its Own‘s surprise shortlisting for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize this seems like a good time to gather ones thoughts, take a deep breath and reassess Sam Lee’s debut solo release.  He didn’t win the big prize, of course – that went to the instantly forgettable Alt-J – but the Mercury nomination did at least serve the cement Lee’s already growing reputation within the UK folk scene.  Given that this is Lee’s debut album, his pedigree is already impressive.  Born into a Jewish family in London’s Kentish town he has variously been, amongst other things, a teacher, song collector, promoter and BBC Folk Award-winning club organiser.  At one point he took a live-in job with the late collector and scholar Peter Kennedy and his wife where he had access to their vast archive of field recordings and later volunteered at Cecil Sharp House where he was to become a regular at the Singers Club – his first paid gigs.  He came to most people’s attention as the impetus behind the award winning Magpie’s Nest Folk Club a few years ago but by then he had already spent a number of years collecting songs within the British traveller communities.  Lee had introduced himself to the great gypsy balladeer and storyteller Stanley Robertson (nephew of the near-legendary traveller singer Jeannie Robertson) at Whitby Festival.  Stanley took him under his wing and not only taught him a large chunk of his own vast repertoire, but crucially introduced him to the traveller communities in his native Aberdeenshire where Lee proceeded to immerse himself in their songs and customs.  The songs on Ground of its Own are sourced from Lee’s own collecting forays within these communities and whilst much has been made of the repertoire being relatively obscure, there are in fact a number of familiar inclusions.  “Goodbye My Darling” shares its overall theme and a number of verses with the much better known transportation ballad “Australia”, “The Ballad Of George Collins” will be familiar to anyone who has heard Shirley Collins’ late-60s recording, “Northlands” is in fact a fairly complete version of the widespread “Outlandish Knight” and “The Tan Yard Side” will be familiar to many, not least from the version included on Topic Records’ Voice of the People collection by the great gypsy singer Phoebe Smith.  Other familiar fragments of songs and verses crop up throughout the album, as tends to be the way with traditional repertoire, so there is actually very little here that is completely obscure.  Lee possesses a smooth baritone voice which, although natural-sounding and free from any obvious affectation, has certainly picked up some of the subtle flourishes that are characteristic of British gypsy singers.  In contrast to their equivalents within the settled community, many traveller singers tend to possess a repertoire of vocal ornamentations that betray an interest in and exposure to music hall and early popular music as much as traditional forms.  Lee uses these techniques to great effect in “The Ballad of George Collins” and most notable in some of the more sentimental songs like “Wild Wood Amber” and “On Yonder Hill”.  This sentimentality is another characteristic of traveller repertoire and Lee’s voice is perfectly pitched to do these songs justice.  Whilst more may have been made of Lee’s decision to exclude the use of guitars from Ground of its Own than is strictly necessary, it is certainly true that the instrumentation, and to some extent the production, are immensely important on this album.  At various points you’ll hear violin, viola, banjo, clarinet, shruti box, trumpet, Jews harp and a number of different percussion instruments including tank drums and hang drum.  You’ll also hear snatches of sampled and processed sounds, sometimes used quite subtly and sometimes less so – as for instance with the inclusion of Massenet’s “Meditation From Thais” in “Wild Wood Amber” or the complete verse of Jane Turriff singing “What Can a Young Lassie Dae Wi An Auld Man” at the beginning of “My Ausheen”.  The extent to which these touches are successful will come down to personal taste and may depend on how much you value either the purity of the Lee’s voice in narrating these songs or the ‘sound collages’ that he seeks to create to illustrate them.  Certainly some commentators have revelled in the quirkiness of the accompaniments whilst others have wrung their hands at the extent to which they shift the emphasis away from Lee’s vocals.  Either way, Lee and main producer Gerry Diver have successfully merged vocals, instruments and sampled sounds and for this reviewer the balance is just about right.  And if Lee’s main concern was to present the songs that he so clearly holds very dear in such a way that they retain their relevance within a contemporary setting whilst losing none of their potency then he has succeeded in doing a fine job.