Album Reviews

Sam Lee – songdreaming

(Cooking Vinyl) UK release date: 15 March 2024

A big musical event, one that opens its arms to ambient and electronic influences while celebrating traditional instruments and old melodic forms

Sam Lee - songdreaming In an age dominated by technology, one of the great challenges facing the western world is maintaining our connection with the natural world. In music the ‘primal’ forms – and folk music in particular – have a vital role to play, forming as they do a first-hand link to the fabric of Earth itself.

A lofty opening paragraph, you might think – but one that helps put the music of Sam Lee in context. On to his fourth album songdreaming, Lee is all about building bridges between folk music and the present day, and in the process he is encountering a number of pain points. The musical and physical connections with the natural world still exist, but as songdreaming reveals, the opening through which they can be expressed is changing. However, with imaginative instrumentation and field recordings to back him up, Lee makes this album a powerful artistic statement.

He is a formidable communicator, the penetrating tones of his voice cutting to the quick. The song titles – Bushes And Briars, Green Mossy Banks – suggest traditional tunes, but all nine of the compositions here are his own, sung with refreshing directness. Lee resists the temptation to over-interpret, meaning that a little vibrato goes a long way, the raw lyrics brought quickly and meaningfully to the surface.

Bushes And Briars works up quite a head of steam, topped by a violin whose figuration suggests Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, only played over an almost industrial clamour of other instruments. Meeting Is A Pleasant Place offers a contrast in mood, the London-based Trans Voices delivering a wholly affirmative chorus to a powerfully uplifting song. The windswept McCrimmond makes the deepest connection to the natural world, a distant curlew the backdrop for open violin strings and rustling piano as they bring forward music of heart-stopping beauty. This is Lee in the great wide open, gazing at the natural environment and celebrating its very existence.

Such moments are key to the album, countering the darkness of Black Dog and Sheep Crook, where Lee’s voice takes on a tremulous quality. Aye Walking Oh is even more profound, the small pipes taking over as the song becomes increasingly propulsive. It is this strength in depth that really informs the listening experience, the ‘seven days of mourning’ explored on Green Mossy Banks levelled by the tender coda for Sweet Girl McRee. In between the grainy bass for Leaves Of Life comes from the earth itself, the ‘bright morning star arising’ as the vocal, beautifully inflected, is joined by the massed choir. This is a beautiful album to listen to, with arranger James Keay and producer Bernard Butler deserving extra credit in knitting a sonic canvas that is full of imagination, incident and musical life, yet they know when to draw back for Lee to present these songs of feverish intensity.

Songdreaming is a big musical event. It is a great place to start if you are less familiar with folk music, opening its arms to ambient and electronic influences while simultaneously celebrating traditional instruments and old melodic forms. It is also a great place to visit if you’ve lived with these forms of music for decades, as Lee presents his original and ultimately uplifting take. The world may have great problems looking after its own habitat, traditions and environment, but music like this offers a forward-looking solution to the struggle. Because of that, songdreaming is an album demanding to be heard.

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