Seth Lakeman – 'Word of Mouth' album review

Built around West Country folk traditions, Lakeman's latest is fascinating but a little too eager



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<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

There’s both a dramatic sense of the hidden past holding forth and a faint whiff of the GCSE history project about the latest album from Seth Lakeman. The gifted folk fiddler has built 11 new songs around interviews with ageing residents of his native Devon and Cornwall, from a dock worker and a railwayman to the last living witness to a WWII training exercise-turned-tragedy. A bonus CD of extracts from the interviews is available for anyone wanting to mainline on the wonderful West Country accents, or steal ideas for a BBC4 documentary.
Ever since his two-album spell on a major label, Lakeman has seemed keen to atone to the traditionalists. 2011’s ‘Tales From the Barrel House’ was self-recorded in a disused cooperage and copper mine with axes, anvils and bellows for additional percussion (how’s that for earthy and underground?). ‘Word of Mouth’, laid down this summer in North Tamerton Church in Cornwall, intensifies the interest in people and place that fuelled Lakeman’s career-defining 2006 album ‘Freedom Fields’. With its focus on the everyday details of disappearing ways of life, in many ways this is folk music at a cellular level.
And yet for all the crackling furnaces and grunting engines, Lakeman’s lyrics lack the immediacy of, say, Springsteen’s first-person blue-collar narratives. You just know ‘Tiger’, the WWII tale, is going to involve a cold smack of military drums and a line about ‘the ever-grieving sea’. He doesn’t help matters by singing, perplexingly often, in an OTT nasal whine better suited to American emo than to ventriloquising these gnarled old English voices, shaped by landscape and labour.
On the other hand, these are fascinating, forgotten stories, served up with Lakeman’s ear-catching muscular bounce and melodic attack. Whether or not marriage and the recruitment of backing vocalist Lisbee Stainton has anything to do with it, there’s also a new interest in female experience. ‘Bal Maiden’ presents a striking vision of nineteenth-century women copper miners trudging to work in their bodices and boots like the original queens of grunge, and it proves Lakeman is still capable of raising goosebumps, as his voice softens, swoops and slows in perfect symmetry with Stainton’s.

The presence of a full band this time behind Lakeman’s surging rhythms and rousing melodies also makes ‘Word of Mouth’ just a little gung-ho. Railway tale ‘The Last Rider’ is all racing banjo, boingy double bass and clickety-clacking percussion. ‘The Wonderer’ involves rhyming ‘lonely flank’ with ‘mighty bank’ over restless strumming. ‘Bells’, written in a belfry from the point of view of the bellringers, uses plucked violin to trace a descending peal, and Seth’s back up on his galloping fiddle for ‘The Ranger’.
It’s this foot-stomping and bow-shredding boyish energy that makese Lakeman stand apart from his wishy-washy ‘nu-folk’ contemporaries, but what still makes him one of folk’s most enjoyable live performers can trip him up on record. ‘If you go for a walk on Dartmoor,’ says one interviewee on the bonus disc, ‘you know you’re going to walk through time.’ Instead of sometimes bounding eagerly ahead, ‘Word of Mouth’ could do with a bit of that steady West Country pace.

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