Monday, November 23, 2009

Steeleye Span - Cogs, Wheels and Lovers


Steeleye Span, along with Fairport Convention, burst upon the scene in the late 60s and created a new musical genre, English folk rock. Traditional English folk songs are given rock settings, in a fusion that preserves some of the feel of the source material, but also rocks. Fairport was the better known band, but after going through shifting lineups for many years, they finally called it quits. Steeleye Span, in some form or other, has toughed it out for 40 years, and now there is a new album. Cogs, Wheels and Lovers will be released here in the United States on January 19 of next year, but you can buy it now from their label in England, Park Records, using the link above.

Steeleye has also had changes in the lineup. Lead singer Maddy Prior, who had briefly left the band at one point, is the only remaining original member. Bass player and singer Rick Kemp has also been with the band for some time, although his absences from the lineup have been somewhat longer than Prior’s. And fiddler and singer Peter Knight is also a long-time member. Guitar player and singer Ken Nicol and drummer Liam Genockey are the most recent additions to the band. Together, this has become the longest lasting lineup in the band’s history.

While Steeleye Span started with a repertoire of traditional songs, they added original material in the “folk style”. This is always a dicey proposition, and there were hits and misses. But with Cogs, Wheels and Lovers, Steeleye Span returns to their roots with a set of all traditional tunes. Separately and as a group, these musicians have mined the rich vein of English folk songs for some time, and they probably don’t want to repeat themselves. So most of the songs here are not well known. It is all the more impressive then that the band finds such a rich variety of material of generally high quality. Here are sea songs, songs of love won and lost, even a ghost story and a song about a horse race.

The musicianship here is even more impressive. It’s no secret that Maddy Prior is a fine singer with a great feel for this traditional material. But the band works with limited instrumentation, and creates a rich variety of musical textures. Yes, they can rock out with the best of them. But the unusual feel of Ranzo is achieved with a backing of just handclaps and plucked fiddle, with wonderful vocal harmonies on top. The full band creates the sound of a machine for The Machiner’s Song. And you can feel the thunder of horses’ hooves in Creeping Jane. Elsewhere, the band achieves a lush, but not overdone, sound for the love songs. None of this is for show. Steeleye Span knows just what each song needs, and they have the versatility to provide it.

One of the joys of English folk songs is the stories they tell, and that is certainly true here. Creeping Jane is a horse who knows she is the best, but no one else believes it except her rider. She proves them all wrong in the end. The Unquiet Grave presents a ghost who appears to his former lover a year and a day after his death, to encourage her to be about the business of living. And there is a surprise on the album. Track 11 is Thornaby Wood, a tale with a poacher as its hero. After the song ends, there is about a minute of silence, followed by another song, which I believe is called The Selkie. This is a haunting tale of a seal-man who comes from the sea to claim his infant son. The setting is for just voice and bowed fiddle, and it works beautifully.

So this edition of Steeleye Span proves completely worthy to bear the name. I will look forward to hearing what they do next.

Steeleye Span: The Machiner‘s Song

Steeleye Span: The Unquiet Grave


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