A band who can use a specially-commissioned 2009 Valentine’s Day Concert at the Southbank Centre as an opportunity to wheel out burlesque dancers and cross-dressers are bound to grab anyone’s attention. Surprisingly, given the finery on display, it was Bellowhead‘s musical performance, and not their unorthodox stage decoration, which really got them noticed. Many of the songs that make up Hedonism were premiered at that concert, whose raucous humour and eclectic revelry colour the album, a study of love with the grisly bits left in.
Previous efforts Burlesque and Matachin attracted acclaim from critics and folk buffs alike, but Hedonism really takes it to another level. Recorded at the hallowed mixing desks of Abbey Road and produced by the legendary John Leckie (whose previous projects have included the likes of Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Muse), listeners could be forgiven for feeling a little starstruck before they’ve even pressed ‘play’.
Overwhelmingly, the band’s joie de vivre shines through. New York Girls whirls the listener around in a sea-smelling, raucous reel, while a cheeky arrangement of tuba and percussion makes Yarmouth Town the closest folk music has ever come to having a danceable club hit.
Purists may not appreciate the frequent genre-splicing and departure from whiter-than-white English folk, but for anyone else it’s fantastic. The Latin feel to The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid is entertaining, while its innuendo-laden description of a somewhat sordid love affair with a rough-and-ready factory maid, delivered wryly in the antiquated register of a folk song, cannot help but tickle anyone with a soul.
17th Century folk song And Begging I Will Go is a real highlight, spiked with stabs of edgy guitar and explosions of brass. The 11-strong membership allow the production of juicy harmonies as rich as three or four parts in the vocals alone, with a result that is truly stunning.
Whatever they’re doing, Bellowhead captivate. Even calmer, less exciting Cross-Eyed And Chinless is punctuated with contrast, the frigid reservation of an English country dance unsettled by syncopated drumbeats until it melts into sultry rumba. Theirs is music to get lost in, be it the sombre echoes of Greensleeves in “grubby” Amsterdam or the darkly enchanting glockenspiel of Captain Wedderburn. Elsewhere, a magical string opening lifts the curtain on Broomfield Hill whose ripping narrative is more alluring than even the beautifully-crafted musical backdrop.
It’s easy to run out of superlatives when recounting the psychotic dynamism of lost love which races through the brass section on Cold Blows The Wind. Despite this, just in case they were mistaken for a band dedicated to the point of humourlessness, somehow, somewhere on Parson’s Farewell, a combination of bass, oboe and percussion pushes at genre boundaries before sneaking back into English folk. Little Sally Racket’s self-styled ‘barbershop-punk-folk’ snarls out of the speakers disconcertingly. Inspired by a recording from a ’60s folk club, this is perhaps the weirdest thing 2010 will throw at music. (Yes, even weirder than THAT meat dress, and far more arresting.)
For those who think folk is dead, or even the preserve of delicate shrinking violets like Laura Marling, Bellowhead provide the antidote to their misconception. Hedonism is a whirlwind of frivolity which needs to be heard to be believed.