There’s something about the workman-like intensity of Tales From The Barrel House that feels not only life-affirming, but genuinely alive in its own self-being. But then, the overtones of hard graft always were the way with Seth Lakeman, who famously recorded his second album for less than £300 – and here the Mercury Prize nominated folk-man turns his hand to his sixth studio effort with impressive results. It’s an album embedded firmly in Lakeman’s Devon roots, speaking with a heady rural earthiness and artisan-crafted allure.
Recorded in a multitude of workshops across a tiny west country hamlet and even the depths of an old copper mine, the album’s mission statement is one of hard and fast trade. Blacksmith’s Prayer in particular is a revelation, and indicative of the core ethos of these values – suddenly switching up from a laboured, soot-choked lament into a rollicking up-beat call to arms. It bristles with the vigour of the empowered everyman, the banjo riffs and strings almost spilling over themselves as they clamour to be heard. In this one track, Lakeman takes up the voice of a collected profession and twins it with intuitively gifted songwriter knack – it’s a potent combination and excels with irresistible charisma.
The Watchmakers Rhyme is rhythmically imbued in much the same way – you can almost taste the ore-dust and hit of the well-worn tool amidst its tunefulness. Hard Work continues the theme at its most brazen level, slipping between the fast and slow, the loud and quiet, like some ale-tinged cousin of Arcade Fire‘s Keep The Car Running. There’s a closeness to the production that tells of a countrified gentility in keeping with England’s rich past, a folkloric passion for the joys of aural tradition and the wonder of a campfire tale. Even on those tracks which display more than a whiff of album-filler, such as Salt From Our Veins, that passion twists itself into the tapestry-like montage of tales lain down here.
It’s on tracks like the majestic Brother Of Penryn that Lakeman as veteran troubadour comes across best – there’s a slung over the shoulder roughness to the scuffed edges of the songs and the dust of seldom walked roads. And of course, there is Lakeman’s peerless fiddle-playing, which in so many ways tells a story beyond that merely contained in the lyrics; a layer of deep, empathic understanding that goes back into the stories of the soil itself. Higher Walls is reassuringly muscular, tapping into the gutsy rock grit Lakeman has tucked away in his voice, and as with punchy opener More Than Money, the slicing, sharp-edged percussion is back – and it’s here, more than anywhere else, that Lakeman’s versatility is best showcased.
Apples Of His Eyes, the album’s finest down-tempo moment, is beautifully tender – the piquancy of plucked strings ringing out true like the first flash of sunlight on a summer morning. And while for the most part the other slower numbers stand as the album’s weaker moments, here at least, Lakeman proves there’s substance to be had in his mellower moods. Tales From Barrel House is by no means without flaw, it’s too untameable for that – but when it shines at its brightest, it is every bit as alive as the people and lands it attempts to portray. It’s an album that profoundly basks in its own proficiency and fair-weather freedom, and for that, it feels all the more triumphant.