As well as an almost evangelical enthusiasm for music I have a great love for sport. In particular team sports such like cricket, football and rugby. And in those team sports you can see many similarities between bands and sports teams. Some teams are built around one or two genius’ players as we’ve seen this week with Ben Stokes’ performances for the England cricket team; for Stokes, in the world of music, Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards spring to mind. Other teams are built upon a collective working together without ego or hubris to become much more than perhaps individually they would be. But then you have some teams who are able to combine individual brilliance into a collective team ethic to become preeminent in their field such as my favourite rugby team, Saracens. Or in the world of music one of my favourite folk rock outfits, Merry Hell.
As a collective this band from the North West have produced some of the very best albums in the folk world of the last 20 years. However, where they really come alive, is in the live performances they have become legendary. Much of that comes from the personality and exuberance of their front duo, in-laws Andrew and Virginia Kettle. Mixing an almost whimsical humour with sharply observed lyrics these two singers have an infectious joy in the music they present which cannot help but endear Merry Hell to their fans and followers.
As expected all the members of this band are exceptional song writers who are also able to work individually as well as part of the band. Which is great as this week Virginia has released her third solo album, but first whilst part of Merry Hell, called No Place Like Tomorrow. And a complete joy it is too as it has been on pretty regular repeat on the Tarka Blowpig stereo since receiving a copy through the post.
The first thing that needs to be said is that Virginia is no formulaic songwriter. There is a breadth and variety to the writing to the album that is refreshing in it’s ambition and honesty. As a antidote to much of the bland, songs by numbers output we find ourselves exposed to on national radio the songs on this album with their humour, observation and turn of beautiful phrase allow the listener to be released into a world of superior and enjoyable music.
The importance of observation and humour cannot be under-estimated. Virginia tackles subjects and issues that are vital in this post-Brexit/Covid 19 world. From the description of our society as a multi-layered class driven home in Union Jack House to the messages of hope in finding commonality in Coming ’round the songs present messages and lessons that need to be taught but without acting preachy or shouty. Without wishing to ever compare Virginia to the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher (which I’m sure Virginia would hate) the quote by Thatcher about being ‘a steel hand in a velvet glove’ seems fitting here. Perhaps this album re-appropriates that quote for a far more worthy and apt reason. Certainly, for me, the message is received far more readily. Indeed the idea, with a bit more kindness and understanding in the world, that ‘tomorrow’ can be a brighter place not only resonates but also inspires.
Musically, as you’d expect given the input from fellow Merry Hell bandmates Neil McCartney (fiddle), Nick Davies (bass) and husband John (guitars and production), the standard is of the highest quality and supports the 12 songs on the album beautifully. What makes the album, though, is Virginia’s voice. There is a clarity and sharpness to the singing on all of the songs that allow the lyrics to be fully expressed. The moments in which Virginia sings unaccompanied, like on The Butter Song, are truly hairs standing up, spine tingling ones. Imagine some of these songs sung by a Sandy Denny, for instance, they would be lauded to the heavens. As they deserve to be, sung as beautifully as they are by Virginia.
No Place like Tomorrow plays as a joyful counterpoint to a world where many are determined to take the hope from. In a time where you may think wearing a mask to go shopping is the end of the world or where there is uncertainty in your life put this album on. Sit back, let the beauty of the music wash over you and listen to Virginia’s words. And remember there is No Place like Tomorrow and that Tomorrow can be bright if you let it.