Did someone mention nu-folk? I hope not. But if that’s what you call a slightly shambolic, lo-fi acoustic music using traditional instruments such as the mandolin and accordian, then that’s what Ralfe Band are. This South London trio, led by singer/songwriter Oly Ralfe, were first played by John Peel in 2004. Now they’re signed to Skint Records (traditionally home to the likes of Fatboy Slim and the Lo Fidelity Allstars) and are being championed by Mark Radcliffe.
On paper, it’s an intriguing proposition; in practice, Swords is an eclectic affair; showing signs not only of a traditional English folk influence (Women of Japan) but also a US roots sound (Parkbench Blues). If pushed, you could just about see some similarities with the likes of the Bees, Badly Drawn Boy and the Beta Band, if it weren’t for the strong thread of Eastern-European influence running through the album.
For example, March Of The Pams has a very Russian-sounding piano riff which speeds up and slows down just as if some blokes in big boots are about to squat and start kicking their feet out. Interspersed with all that, are vocal-less piano-led interludes (Frascati Way Southbound and Siberia).
It’s not just the music which is a little off-kilter – the lyrics are pretty kooky too: “Horses all show me their teeth/I say good grief/I try to ride one but it throws me and I land in mud” Oly sings in Broken Teeth Song. It’s the kind of English eccentricity which reminds me of (and unfortunately, is about as funny as) a Punch and Judy show. While humour is obviously an integral part of Ralfe Band’s songwriting, I’m not convinced it should be attempted unless you’re certain that it’s funny.
The best song by far on the album is Albatross Waltz; a lackadaisical, mournful waltz describing kings who carry swords, geraniums in bloom and swaying apple trees. Its quaintness is charming but there’s not enough tracks as good to really pull off a whole album. While the superb production manages to capture the sparsity of Ralfe Band’s sound without ever making it sound half cooked, Oly’s the slightly reedy vocals get a little grating after a while.
When you’re making music this bare you have to have spades of raw talent to make it work, and I’m not yet convinced, on the basis of this offering, that Ralfe Band possess more than a few trowelfuls.