Ballads Of The Broken Few sees Seth Lakeman take a departure from English folk influenced songs. Much more than any of his previous albums, it is all about the voices. Not just Lakeman’s this time, but that of friends and touring mates Wildwood Kin, an all female vocal trio from Exeter comprising sisters Beth and Emillie Key and their cousin Meghann Loney.
His last albums Tales From The Barrelhouse and Word Of Mouth may be characterised by their rustic feel, but this latest effort is better defined as minimalist. The previous couple of albums also hinted that there was more to come from Lakeman, and this collection undeniably proves that, as it takes him off in a new direction. Often there is nothing other than some strummed guitar or a droning fiddle to accompany the vocals. Take for instance Anna Lee, where the captivating voices rise and fall in perfect time with each other.
The two sets of vocals, Lakeman’s evocative vibrato and Wildwood Kin’s lush harmonies, work perfectly together and the addition of the trio is inspired. It’s resulted in an album best listened to when there is time to concentrate on it. Where 2008 album Kitty Jay, which brought him to mainstream attention, was loud and energetic, this is more reserved and thoughtful.
Through all eight of his solo albums Lakeman has had a way with a folk tale, and this shows no sign of diminishing. Opener the Willow Tree is an English broadside that has been reworked. The album has four old songs but the feeling seeps through to many of the seven Lakeman-penned numbers.
There are unmistakable tones of Americana and Gospel music in Ballad Of The Broken Few, and it would be as at home in the south of the United States as the south west of England. Much of this is to do with the harmonies, and Lakeman is well aware of this. This is most evident on Silence Reigns: “Let me wonder/through the shades of green/ let me follow where the evening went/ Let me go now/where the silence reigns.” Lakeman pleads to the accompaniment of a mournfully droning fiddle.
Lakeman’s live shows have always had a highly energetic feel to them, with ferocious fiddle playing and foot stamping. From this album, Fading Sound is beat heavy and may be the most natural fit in such a setting. It will be intriguing to hear just how this different collection of songs fits live. The title track has an almost lazy beat, with distorted blues guitar washing over it, as Wildwood Kin echo almost every word Lakeman sings, emphasising the contrasting vocals.
The album was recorded in an old Jacobean manor house, and the character of the place inevitably adds to the feel of the album. It was recorded with producer Ethan Johns, who undoubtably helped push Lakeman in this new direction – but it’s unlikely he needed much persuading. It’s ultimately a departure, but one that is unlikely to alienate any old fans. Instead Ballad Of The Broken Few feels like a natural progression, and may succeed in helping him win new fans, particularly across the Atlantic.