Album review: Harp & A Monkey – The Victorians
- Credit: Archant
Engaging and award-winning folk trio unearth more musical nuggets of our oral history.
It is easy for artists to allow the 'concept' in their concept albums to take the reins, and drag the whole project to the depths of self-indulgence, testing the patience of even die-hard fans.
The harder road is to carve a record that not only withstands repeated listens but boasts some playlist-worthy highlights, to boot.
Veteran folk trio Harp & A Monkey have managed that with The Victorians, their fourth self-released album. Already specialists in poignant and melodic short stories (their last record reflected the extraordinary tales of ordinary folk swept up in the horrors of the First World War), this is a deep-dive into the trove of largely forgotten street, parlour, work, popular and rural songs from the Victorian era, which have then been reworked for contemporary ears.
Album opener A Naked Man In Paradise suggests a rather pious, staid set awaits, with its pared-back arrangement and morbid tale of a maiden voyage that ends with the deaths of three dozen passengers in the Mersey's biting waters.
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But it soon picks up, and the talented trio transport you to the fireside of a lively 19th Century pub where vivid pictures are painted of bare-knuckle boxers, political corruption and wife auctions. Yes, you read that right - Ten Shilling Wife shines a light on this little-discussed aspect of Victorian life, expertly told to a compelling melody and sharp, crackling arrangement of whistle, harp, accordion, finger-picked banjo and infectious group singing.
A gentle accordion sway and twinkly glockenspiel underline Jolly Grinder, taken from a popular 18th century play about a happy-go-lucky miller, merrily bucking the Victorian trend for abstinence from booze, while Glossop Road follows the fortunes of the married volunteer rifleman more interested in getting to grips with the women of the red light district next to his barracks than he is preparing for war.
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The Victorians will appeal to fans of alt-folksters like King Creosote, anyone who loves The Unthanks' Diversions project, and anyone looking for a thought-provoking and musically stimulating fistful of folk.