Joy & Jealousy by James Bell, could be re-named Absolute Joy & Jealousy. It really is very, very good. Joy & Jealousy is packed full of energetic traditional tracks, slower laments, ballads and tune sets. The fabulous stories of folk songs gain a lot from James Bell’s retellings.
The Mermaid has a rousing chorus and brilliant sing-a-long feel, a syncopated rhythm, and plenty of accordion and drums. John Peel jumps straight in with slight falsetto voices, electronic keys and a full chorus. It is reminiscent of pub sing songs late at night; it’s a much more raucous and jolly version of John Peel than listeners may be used to, and that is saying something.
As wonderful as his energetic folk tales are he can’t save Allen & Sally, the tale of a weary soldier returning home to his lady who fails to recognise him due to his excessive facial hair. It uses a lovely bouncing tune called ’Burton Ale’, but after the excitingly raucous story of A New Wake To Make Love it seems a bit tired and predictable, like a romantic comedy.
Following the tune set Joy & Jealousy, we take a darker turn with Can You Wonder At Crime? It is a theatrical monologue about Victorian crime rates, the hypocrisy of the rich, and social justice issues which were coming to the forefront of the Victorian era. While the drama of the piece is strong - unsurprising as its origins are those of the music halls - with a firm ticking as accompaniment, it never quite got off the ground. With a bit more evolution it could have morphed into something terrifyingly thrilling.
It is followed by a more gentle track, Amarillis, a story of a country lass. Sadly it only reaches a good level of low-brow country dancing in the final chorus, rather than earlier. James Bell’s sleeve notes draw attention to the ambiguous nature of the lyrics - which add a far darker facets to the track.
In a similar way to Amarillis, the character of Miss Hughes in the opening track Robbing On The Highway is wonderful, the story of a female highwayman. It is a really strong opening, starting with the voice of James and then exploding into a ensemble sound - was that a kazoo? Surely not?
The tunes are also brilliantly performed with tremendous amounts of energy. There can never be enough accordion, and Ironlegs & The High Caul Cap is brilliantly energetic, though it could possibly have done with slightly less guitar. It builds into a fast paced familiar tune in The High Caul Cap which is real toe-tappin’ good fun.
The titular track, Joy & Jealousy is another tune, dated as far back as 1300 and the court of Edward II, if not earlier. It is simple and delicate with antiquarian instrumentation.
It’s not as joyous as the Morris set, The First of May, Four Up & Old Molly Oxford though. The strict rhythm and jolly tunes are wonderful.
The closing track The Dawning Of The Day, in a similar way to Amarillis never quite grows fully into the track you might hope for; it never quite reaches the energy level of The Mermaid, John Peel or A New Way To Make Love. It would have been great to end with another explosion of sound.
The faster and more energetic the track the more enjoyable it is. James Bell’s enthusiasm is infectious but on occasion his vocals don’t quite measure up. On the slower laments and ballads he would have done well to build up the instrumental levels and the energy to bring the slower numbers to the high standards of the others. Generally the Joy tracks are more enjoyable than the Jealous.Rosamund Woodroffe
Released by House of Lyra Recordings on 21st September 2013
1. Robbing On The Highway
2. The First of May, Four Up & Old Molly Oxford (tune set)
3. The Mermaid
4. William Grismond’s Downfall
5. The New Way To Make Love
6. John Peel
7. Joy and Jealousy (tune)
8. Allen & Sally
9. Ironlegs & The High Caul Cap (tune set)
10. Can You Wonder At Crime?
12. The Dawning Of The Day