Just a bunch of folkies from Brighton prove they’re not beyond such a comparison, with a further visceral acoustic take of the back catalogue.
Release Date: 10th March 2023
Label: On The Fiddle
Format: CD / vinyl (RED!)
Now, let’s get this right, so we don’t get it wrong. New Levellers album, right? Yes, sort of. All new material, then? Well, no, but this isn’t just another rebundling, remixed and revived, live or otherwise. Remember Collective, that 2018 set that, um, revived and rebundled songs in an acoustic and semi-orchestral setting, rather good actually, even if. This is a continuation of that, hence the name, albeit with a couple of tweaks to the template. Tweak one is the formal introduction of Dan Donnelly to the ranks. yup, that Dan Donnelly, the Wonderstuff and Celtic Social Club fella, on guitar, mandolin and additional vocals, who has been gigging with the band for a while now. I understand Simon Friend hasn’t left as such, and that Donnelly is additional, even if Friend doesn’t currently take part. And tweak two is two new songs.
Produced by Sean Lakeman, a return gig for him after earlier work for the band, he becoming quite the in-demand producer for those of a social conscience, having helmed also records by Billy Bragg, Frank Turner and Show Of Hands, amongst others, as well as touring his duo with Kathryn Roberts, his wife. Mixing duties are covered by veteran Levellers associate and current Oysterband bassist, Al Scott. As with Collective, a pair of Moulettes augment the band, Hannah Miller and Ollie Austin, on cello, vocals and percussion, and all songs were played live in the studio, where else, but the band’s own Metway studios. The aim is for it to be “stripped back” with “deep folk leanings,” says Jeremy Cunningham, of the band. Achieved?
Opener, The Game, certainly suggests so. After some brief white noise of fiddle, almost a reprise of the original, but minus the bells, a sombre throb of bass and guitar introduces a stately and string-drenched iteration of this favourite. With the drums a constant solemn backbeat, it is a more considered version than all those years ago, on Levelling The Land, drawing on experience, tempered by the 32 years since that album cemented their presence. Down By The River ‘O’ is then a newish one, at least to the band proper, it coming from the pen of longtime associate, Rev Hammer. If you have caught Drunk In Public, you’ll likely recognise it. Again, a gloomy flourish of strings beckons it in, with a background 1-2-3-4 to crank the collective into gear, an upbeat fiddle-led riot, with a chanted chorale. Yelps and hoots aplenty, this’ll get the audience on their feet. Cholera Well follows, in a radically different version from either 2008’s Letters From The Underground or the more recent Lockdown Sessions, arguably fitting better the mood of the lyric. Chopping cello and an almost nursery rhyme backing vocal mantra give a haunting mix of melancholy and malevolence. Masterful, with Jon Sevink’s fiddle well to the fore, reminding quite how essential to their sound he is.
A swirling sweep of strings and juddering lop-sided rhythm greet a lurching Together All The Way. From their debut and a fitting song to entitle this project, it encapsulates the folky tropes that have always permeated their canon. Some lovely slide guitar here, too. And some tinkling mandolin from Donnelly. Wake The World benefits from the additional cello and vocal presence of the Moulettes, and has lasted better than some of the songs from the “difficult” mid-period Green Blade Rising, when the band was trying to persuade their audience that they had a lasting credibility. And, having endured, they weren’t far wrong, were they?
Wheels throws a stick in one, so unexpected is the vocal coda that it begins with, the song originally a punkier thrash. But, if there were also echoes of power-pop in that first iteration, Hannah’s vocal interlude is nearer pure pop, as if she had heard ooh aahs where they hadn’t been. It is certainly different, however much Mark Chadwick’s vocal could be nobody else. The fiddle solo is almost chamberesque, making the song and the background shimmer a psychedelic whimsy. Clock the gong on the final note, too.
No messing, mind, with Battle Of The Beanfield, almost a mission statement for the band. Stark cello stamps out the direction of flow, then combines fiddle, and possibly bowed bass, making for an aggressive string quartet-type arrangement. Chadwick’s vocal is suitably strident. No percussion, little other instrumentation, it is a chilly and effective arrangement. Bizarrely, there are echoes of All Along The Watchtower that filter though, and it is all wonderful. (Excuse me, whilst I play it again.) Inevitably an anti-climax, but arguably necessary to bring down (up?) the mood, Man O War is one of the entirely new songs, a wistful lyric, looking back at a life well spent, the string section creeping back in to serenade the guitar and vocal. Very much in the mood of Scott’s own band. A grower.
Sell Out continues in this lighter vein, and is scarcely memorable from the Levelling The Land version. Slower and with a swaying gait, is this again a reflection on how idealism gets eroded by experience? The sotto voce vocalisation of the “sold them down the river” line gives a real sense of some ironic awareness, with the keyboards, Matt Savage, adding a sense of be careful what you wish. I think it is Donnelly who adds some vocals here, his voice in contrast to Chadwick’s, and less abrasive than Friend. Suddenly it ends, and the goosebumps come.
The final song, and second newie is Sitting In The Social, a bleak political polemic, the social not being a social club, but the one where giros are the stock in trade. Or not, as the tale unfolds, much in the style of a sea shanty, with a similar lack of return repeated at the food bank. “It’s true, my lads, it’s true, my lads,” and I have little doubt it a candid reflection of life in the world’s 5th largest economy. The rhythmic pump of Charlie Heather, drums, and Jez Cunningham, bass, are mixed high, lest you forget, elsewhere on this recording, their importance in the overall wallop of this venerated institution. On this performance, and on top of the last studio album, the vibrant and renewed passion of Peace, there is little stopping them meeting their half century, a mere 15 years away.
Catch Levellers on tour, promoting this album.
And here’s Down By The River ‘O’: