Although it’s tempting to view Mercury-nominated folk artist Sam Lee as a traditionalist, collecting and reviving old folk songs, this would be a mistake. His second album, this time credited to Sam Lee & Friends perhaps to reflect the growing role of the ensemble in these spectacular arrangements, demonstrates his open-mindedness and ability to breathe new, startlingly radical life in to these songs. It’s an adventurous musical form of fusion cooking, adding elements from Indian, West African and Asian music to the foraged ingredients of the great folk songs of the British Isles. In doing so, Lee concocts a result that is balanced, powerful and hugely enjoyable.
The Fade In Time represents a clear continuation and development of the concerns Lee began on his excellent debut Ground Of Its Own. This time, the arrangements are more expansive, with even bolder choices in instrumentation and colour, never made at the expense of the songs and the strong emotions at their core. Lee’s band features cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, Steve Chadwick on trumpet, percussionist Josh Green, violinist Flora Curzon and, crucially, Jonah Brody on koto. It’s a strong ensemble with great touch and sensitivity, but also capable of creating theatrical flourish where appropriate. The band also benefits from additional contributions, particularly the mournful piano chords provided by co-producer Arthur Jeffes (Penguin Cafe).
In a revelatory fashion, Lee is unafraid of making these songs groove. Over Yonders Hill has something of a Malian tinge to its delicate shuffle, slightly reminiscent of Tinariwen. Phoenix Island is furtive and urgent, Josh Green’s percussion providing subtle, curiously soulful impetus. The opening Jonny O’The Brine, pitched somewhere between Bollywood film score and Nigerian highlife (with hunting horns inspired by the gypsy music of Tajikistan), is remarkably physical and breathtaking – perhaps a form of purely acoustic dance music.
There are also some mournful and reflective moments that focus on the growing power of Lee’s vocal delivery. Of his folk singing antecedents, he perhaps most closely resembles Nic Jones in the style and timbre of his voice, although he is less conversational. Lee’s reading of Lord Gregory is convincingly full of longing, whilst the closing The Moss House strips back all the adornments found elsewhere in favour of something pure and haunting.
Lee and his ensemble know how to construct a musical narrative to match the vivid storytelling in the words – Moorlough Maggie is a particularly fine example of a slow building journey, with textural flourishes from the strings and direct, simple horn calls, the dynamic rising and falling in nuanced and unpredictable ways. The sensual, rapturous The Moon Shone On My Bed At Night (apparently the last song Lee learned from his mentor Stanley Robertson) veers between aching vulnerability and a jazz-inflected sense of movement and delight. Blackbird, with its undulating cymbal splashes and rolls and interjecting horns, has a palpable sense of drama.
Eschewing straightforward acoustic guitars, Lee pushes himself to make unconventional and interesting choices in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. On The Fade In Time, he explores an impressively wide range of textures and sounds, from the stately, effective deployment of the Roundhouse choir on the glorious, heartbreaking Lovely Molly. One of his boldest choices (something that could so easily have reeked of hubris were Lee’s readings of these songs not so distinctive and confident) is to make use of field and archive recordings. The majestic Lord Gregory, for example, begins with a discussion between Hamish Henderson and Charlotte Higgins, the latter reciting the lyrics in a strong Scottish brogue. Sometimes Lee threads these archive sources through his own music, evoking the pull of memory. This music is restless but keenly aware, finding common ground and intersections between a range of source material and contemporary contexts and, most importantly of all, delivering these songs with honesty, conviction and genuine feeling.