The world of presenting traditionally influenced music is a tricky one. On one hand, it is traditional music and therefore to do anything but slavishly adhere to the commandments of that genre is to risk releasing the wrath of those for whom the slightest deviation is heretical. But on the other, to keep folk music alive in a world of streaming services, quick fix soundbites and the constant search for a new direction, traditional music has to find ways to connect with new audiences. It is a balancing game to be played, one with the only rule being that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.
Luckily enough there are artists in the folk world with both the artistic integrity and bravery that allows them to tread that thin line. One of my albums of last year, Hollowbone by Kathryn Tickell and The Darkening, is a recording that showcases that brilliantly. Add to that an album that is an early contender for the 2020 award. That album being Old Wow by Sam Lee.
Lee’s third studio album, produced by Bernard Butler and featuring an appearance from the beautiful and ethereal voice of The Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser, covers just about every base. For this fan of proper melancholic songs it evokes all the emotions one could want. Sad, angry, resigned but determined, overtly political but not preachy, this is an album of collected tunes that is most certainly of our time yet with a significant nod to the traditionalists of old.
The reasons for this are plenty. Firstly, Lee’s voice which is dreamily hazy, similar to me to the great Kevin Ayers and in particular his wonderful The Lady Rachel, seeps into your consciousness gently but firmly imparting his messages of environmental harm and danger. It’s a voice that has a disconcerting feel to it, one in line with the stories being told.
Add to that voice the lush production of Suede’s master guitarist Butler and you have something closing in on aural perfection. With an industrial percussiveness that reminds one of mid period Tom Waits paired with orchestral arrangements of brass and strings that could easily be something Robert Kirby would have given to Nick Drake the musicality is just wonderous. There are shades of progressive rock, jazz and classical music that all melt together to create music that is immersive to the listener.
Sam Lee has created a modern traditional folk record that has the potential to be a true classic. One that will appeal to the ‘old’ traditional but will ‘wow’ new audiences. This is a record of rare and wonderous beauty that gives messages of warning for the world, but hope for the future of the music Lee presents and performs. Unlike the Turtle Dove which Lee sings about in one of the ten amazing songs, Old Wow is an album that ensures traditional folk music has a bright and exciting future.