Life is often a hard road. There’s the one less travelled, the hard-knock life and the first train to Strugglesville. English troubadour, Seth Lakeman sounds like he’s gone down all of these and even more at the humble age of 35. However, this could have been achieved by living vicariously through others and their interesting fables that border on folklore because his sixth studio album, “Tales from the Barrel House” is in keeping with this theme.
Lakeman’s no stranger to hard work, having built a name and reputation in both bands, ensembles and as a solo artist but it was the album, “Kitty Jay” that earned him a Mercury Prize nomination. It was recorded on a shoestring budget at his brother’s house and at times it feels like he wanted to replicate that earthy, home-grown vibe here. Proving less is more, he did most of the work himself – writing, performing, producing and mixing – and he relies heavily on instruments like the acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle and these all ultimately prove there are many strings to this talented man’s bow.
“Tales from the Barrel House” is a 10-track ode to those jobs that were once considered a craft and are now being lost to the machinery and modernisation of everything. They are love letters to the dirty and underappreciated roles that were once the cornerstones of contemporary-living. So while Tony Robinson got on with it by literally getting his hands dirty with the series, The Worst Jobs in History, Lakeman is content to simply tell their stories. Often the stuff of folk legend, he brims with praise and celebration for these masters of true grit, the real stuff of blood, sweat and tears that doesn’t come from rock ‘n’ roll but tradition, identity and pride in your work.
Opening track, “More Than Money” was recorded down a mine in Morwellham. It has an old charm and a simple earthy feel. There is romance found in the darkness as Lakeman sings of mining for minerals while accompanied by violins aplenty. Consider the sage lines: “More than money can weigh you down/more than money can dig new ground”.
Like much of the album it is catchy but also boasts a raw honesty by revelling in the elements- metal, earth, rust and dust. “Blacksmiths Prayer” builds on a similar theme- speaking of an old craft through an epitaph to a life that has disappeared. The clangs of metal also match the rather eerie atmospherics, so forget The Breeders chirping about one divine hammer, this one wins and is reverential, visceral and quaint.
“The Watchmaker’s Rhyme” has a fun stomp and you could almost imagine it being played in the lower decks of the Titanic, complete with a gutbucket. “Hard Road” talks about it all being a difficult journey on your own and is reminiscent of James Vincent McMorrow even though the latter seems to lap up solitude. “The Sender” goes down a completely different street and captures the tender memories found in the letters once sent by two lovers.
Elsewhere, we get the cute, sing-along chime of “Apple of His Eye” while “Salt from Our Veins” makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Add to this a reworking of a traditional song from Cornwall and you’re set.
Perhaps the only real criticism of this album is the fact that the tracks often seem rather interchangeable. The slow-burning ballads and back-to-basics approach mean the numbers are often a little too familiar and reminiscent of their predecessors. So it’s basically akin to a stack of sepia photographs, at first glance they look alike but you can appreciate the subtle differences once you’ve invested some extra time in them.
“Tales from the Barrel House” features sentimental storytelling with ten odes to the town and country of the past. It is solid and textured folk pop that is often warm, a tad maudlin and ultimately very humble, pleasant and sincere. In all, the listening experience is like being taken by the hand by a proud, old-fashioned local on a rather mystical and quaint journey through the past. So sublimely rustic.
Originally published on 24 April 2012 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/nd/albumreviews/tales_from_the_barrel_house_seth_lakeman
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