Steamchicken – Look Both Ways

Album Review | Chicken Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 3/5

Steamchicken musically stir together folk and Cabaret era swing jazz with panache and style. Formed by Ted Crum when he left Peeping Tom they have been playing festivals for twenty years. Look Both Ways is their first album with vocalist Amy Kakoura and a fine listen it is too. From the opening call of the brass section this is an album that sticks up two fingers at our compulsion to pigeon hole. Is it jazz or folk? I’ve been listening to it for a while and I am none the wiser. Opener “Jericho” is an old spiritual that swings along, pushed by Joe Crum’s driving drums and a wonderful brass chorus. Again and again through the album Amy Kakoura’s vocals are a powerful force, she can be an American Greenwich Village folk singer or a big Shirley Bassey belter and they just sparkle here. Second track “Brigg Fair”, an English folk song collected by Percy Grainger, is given a treatment that demonstrates the layered beauty that is Steamchicken. A Reggae drum pattern with just a little studio sparkle opens, the brass chorus joins in and then we get Amy Kakoura in sultry torch singer mode, like Kate Bush at her breathy best. Saxophones chorus Memphis brass style like a 60s Atlantic Records session and that wonderful voice holds our interest until the end. “When I Get Low I Get High”, from its compressed sound opening, just oozes with Prohibition era carefree abandon, Amy Kakoura gives Imelda May a run for her money as she spits rock n roll power on this catchy ditty to a pick me up. “Western Approaches” moves swiftly from folk ballad, with its watery ambience, to a swaggering Kurt Weill number. Kakoura roars the lyric with the power and passion of 60s Bassey or Mary Coughlan. This track with its swaggering beat, rolling piano and ‘thumbs in the braces’ music hall delivery typifies the album’s feel good factor and demonstrates it strengths. Time and time again the music crackles with a power and an ‘other worldliness’ that lifts this far above anything the band has released before. If you loved Steamchicken already, prepare to have your mind blown. Indeed the album sleeve notes say ‘here at last we find the fabled Steamchicken in its natural habit: surrounded by an excess of brass, volume and upsetting puns’. Dodgy word play aside there is a sense here that even the band recognise they have put down something powerful and momentous. “Gypsy” and “Oh Mary” with their edgy reggae beats, vocalise and jazz brass are enthused with a power that turns well-known lyrics into smoky torch ballads. “Oh Mary” tips into dub and positively skanks along around a pulsing keyboard riff and a rich blues vocal. “Big Tin Horn” starts as a kind of retro 30s jazz vocal number, flappers with pearls crooning into an ancient microphone, but the folk reel when it comes twists the whole thing into an alternative dimension, like some kind of musical steampunk. Intoxicating and just mad. It sounds like coliding radio stations on a Bakelite ancient radio, as jazz clarinet meshes with harmonica and jigs and reels. “Foot Falling” is hypnotic, infectious and compelling. The rhythm section lay down a funky devilish beat that just cooks, huge drums, 70s reggae bass and harmonica defy you to keep still. The vocal, brass and harmonica spar, in a ‘call and response’ Ska way, that is simply wonderful. The shifting tempo and vocal gymnastics show that this is first and foremost dance music that will send the audiences wild. This track, like much of this classy and surprising album, played to the big band Clare Teal Jamie Cullum market could be a huge cross over hit. “Mary And The Soldier” takes a Folk Ballad and turns it into a big band anthem with a groove and elasticity that Bellowhead could only dream of. It roars along, as what sounds like an accordion swirls over a reggae infused beat on a bed of big band brass stabs and choruses, till it ends on a rapid crescendo that leaves you gasping.