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Those who find the current crop of middle class London based folkies nauseatingly unauthentic would be well advised to lend an ear to Harp and a Monkey's début album. The trio, formed in 2008, are in their words “old enough to know better”, and give traditional folk a contemporary twist with the addition of squidgy electronic beats and samples. Hardly a revelation in itself, but where some sound ham-fisted, Harp and a Monkey sound perfectly natural. The occasional use of archaic phrasing in the storytelling also sounds totally unforced. The tales talk of running away to sea, the mystery of far-off lands and travelling fairs, maidens are described as “fair” and men don't marry, they “take a wife”.
This record could only have been made in the north of England, fuelled by Tetley Tea, superstition and traditional imagery. However, this isn't a group of Luddites longing for a bygone era. 'Old Wives Tales' is a list of just that, with its chorus of “Old wives tales/they never fail” and ends with a muttered “old wives tales/they never fail... to amuse me”. 'The Soldier's Song' speaks of the horrors of the battle of Passchendaele and features the recording of a genuine Sergeant Major recounting his experiences over the top of skittering beats, banjo and a sparkling glockenspiel. There's a passion in Martin Purdy's rich Lancastrian tones that no amount of time at the Brit School will buy you.
The kids choir on 'Katy's Twinkly Band' isn't there to disguise a below par song as is often the case with such an inclusion. In fact this would be a highlight regardless, but the chorus following the freak show tale of “tattooed ladies, bearded babies, mermaids in cages” it's an absolute delight, encapsulating the wide-eyed wonder at the world's mysteries. Elsewhere there are fables of girls drowning, absent fathers and a nod to the unsung heroes of the industrial revolution, the workmen themselves, on 'Digging Holes'.
Harp and a Monkey would be categorized as folktronica but they're a long way from the soundscapes of Four Tet and the like, it's rather an update of the time-honoured folk traditions - minus the beards and dodgy knitwear. The quality of the storytelling combined with the delicate arrangements and the embracing of modern sounds with traditional acoustic instruments come together to make a compelling album with depth and originality. When the Mercury panel are picking the obligatory folk album for next year's shortlist they should consider this, it might even have the crossover appeal to win it.
Harp and a Monkey - The Soldier's Song by Folk Police Recordings
Harp and a Monkey on Myspace
Buy the album.
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