Album Review | Hereteu Records | Review by Ian Taylor | Stars: 5/5
The Stockton on Tees Folk Club alumni have rightly inherited the mantle of the folk world’s star acapella trio from the recently retired Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Strangers, their fourth studio album, is their strongest yet and contains some potentially classic original songs from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award 2015 and 2016 ‘Best Group’ winners. These songs have flowed freely from the pen of Sean Cooney, who along with Michael Hughes and David Eagle have come up with as fine a collection of ‘songs for our time’ as you could wish for. The album opens with a cover of the aforementioned Folk Awards’ ‘Best Song’ in 2000, Maggie Holland’s “A Place Called England”, a sharply observed and still relevant acerbic yet optimistic comment on the state of the nation, the silky smooth harmonies in sharp contrast with the bitter lyrical message. Next up is “Ghafoor’s Bus”, a jaunty sing-a-long which again belies the serious message delivered within the celebratory tale of the Teessider who converted a bus into a travelling kitchen to feed refugees across Europe. The addition of a choral backing from Aldeburgh Young Musicians adds to the goosebump-inducing, atmospheric nature of the song. But before those goosebumps have had a chance to subside, album highlight “Be The Man” shoots them back up with the in-yer-face tale of Matthew Ogston and Nazim Mahmood, a couple whose lives were shattered by the failure of Naz’s parents to accept his sexuality, ultimately leading to the young Muslim’s suicide. Surely destined to be a folk classic, the ballad benefits from stirring instrumental backing, including Jude Abbott (Chumbawamba) on flugelhorn and Rachel McShane (Bellowhead) on cello and fiddle, which sets Cooney’s stunning lead vocal off perfectly. It’s a fine, inspiring anthem even on a superficial level, but I defy anyone to listen to the song knowing the back-story, and not be moved to tears. Indeed, Cooney’s voice appears on the edge of cracking on occasions, and who can blame him. Powerful stuff. And there’s no respite from the emotional rollercoaster as “Carriage 22” recounts the true story of the brave train passengers who foiled a terrorist attack on an Amsterdam to Paris train in 2015. The acapella rendition somehow instilling the account with more poignancy and consideration of what might have been. “Cable Street” recounts the story of Johnny Longstaff, a Stockton-born teenager who was part of the hundred thousand strong crowd of all ages and backgrounds who stood in solidarity with the Jewish community of the East End of London against Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted fascists in 1936. Again, the acapella arrangement instils the song with extra pathos. No Pasaran! Next up, “Dark Water” is the true story of two Syrian refugees who successfully swam the Aegean Sea to escape conflict following the death of the brother of the storyteller. There is atmospheric backing on this slow-tempo ballad from the Aldeburgh Young Musicians, Eagles’ piano and Hughes’s guitar, and lush harp accompaniment from Mary Ann Kennedy. This sensitively arranged song rises in strength and optimism as the journey develops, reflecting the calmness of the album’s ocean-blue artwork, in contrast to the ‘wild and high’ waves the boys experience, and ultimately the bittersweet nature of the successful outcome to the journey. We’re brought swiftly back to earth by the opening bars of “Bob Cooney’ Miracle”, the story of a ‘loaves and fishes’ type act by a Spanish Civil War volunteer, taken from the memoir ‘Proud Journey’. Then the sublime “Lapwings” (which the trio performed on ‘Springwatch’ recently) brings further contrast. The beautifully observed words of a First World War Private are sensitively delivered in rich acapella tones. The final two songs on the album, “With These Hands” and The Hartlepool Pedlar, contain common themes in relating the tales of a 1950s immigrant from Guiana, Sybil Phoenix, and Michael Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer, an eastern European Jewish refugee of the late 1th Century. Ultimately the message from the two songs is that both individuals and society can triumph over hate and desolation, and it’s a message that the whole album represents – one of hope and a better future in these troubled times. This may not be an album which reflects the dry and rapid fire humour that runs through the band’s live shows and back catalogue, but these Brexit, Trump and Tory-blighted times are not very funny, let’s face it. The Young’uns, however, will still put a smile on your face with the sheer strength of their songs, the beauty of their arrangements, their spell-binding harmonies, and their absolutely spot on topical social messages. An absolute triumph.