Sam Lee - Old Wow

2020 studio album

Old Wow - Sam Lee

the bright young folk review

Accompanied by James Keay on piano, bassist Misha Mullov-Addado, percussionist Josh Green and Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh from The Gloaming on violin with guest contributions by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and harmonies from Cosmo Sheldrake and poet Dizraeli, Sam Lee’s third album is something of a sea change on his musical journey which finds him embracing electric guitar. And not just any old electric guitar, but electric guitar played by Bernard Butler from Suede who also produced.

Not that this means any shift away from traditional folk, however, all the songs here coming from the canon, albeit often lyrically revised for more contemporary relevance. Much of the album deals with our relationship with the environment and, as emblemised in the title, the ability of nature to create wonder and connection.

Case in point being the rumbling opening track, The Garden Of England, a rewrite of Seeds of Love (from whence the album title comes), a display song likely dating from the 17th century, which Cecil Sharp learned from a gardener named John England, which doubtless informs the new title.

Introduced with gentle guitars and backdropped by puttering djembe drums and didgeridoo Worthy Wood is a lullaby carol dating from the 1920s of Exmoor Gypsy origin. The Moon Shines Bright has a similar provenance in being adapted from a carol originally collected among the gypsies in Sussex and Surrey about 1900. Set to a slow arrangement built around violin and piano, it opens with the original verse (just changing God to the voice of love), but then takes lyrical wing to incorporate Fraser singing Wild Mountain Thyme and a theme of mortality.

While Lay This Body Down is an old American spiritual dedicated to Extinction Rebellion, the bulk of the collection trawls English traditional pastures. For example, Soul Cake, which derives from the old custom of children going door-to-door on All Souls’ Day begging for pastries with crosses on them called soul-cakes. Lee interpolates Green Grow The Rushes, O with this variation of a Souling song likely dating from the 19th century arranged in a bluesy slow march rhythm with distorted bass, ominously pounding drums, jazzy piano and whistling and once again talking of time and death.

Keeping the musical mood solemn with piano accompaniment and a solo from Matthew Barley, learned from the version by The Copper Family and the words only slightly tweaked, Spencer The Rover is probably the album’s most visited song from the tradition, while the most obscure is likely Jasper Sea, a stark six-minute piano hymnal concerning the often tragic fate of sailors. The origins of the song are hard to trace, other than being collected and sung by East Anglian traditional folk singer Jumbo Brightwell around the mid-20th century.

Also familiar will be the Scottish traditional Sweet Sixteen, one of many songs about fair maidens seduced and abandoned by feckless lovers, here a ploughboy who leaves her with a baby, suitably presented in forlorn mode with sparse violin and piano. Parting songs about mourning while awaiting a lover’s return are also staple narratives, here represented by Turtle Dove, opening unaccompanied before haunting violin and the grumble of drums carry it along.

Old Wow ends in muted form with the melancholic but soul-warming Balnafanen, learned from his late mentor, the Scottish ballad singer Stanley Robertson and again blending a pinch of Wild Mountain Thyme. A stunning start to the new decade: what can you say but, wow.

Mike Davies

Produced by Bernard Butler
Released January 31 on Cooking Vinyl

1. The Garden Of England (Seeds Of Love)
2. Lay This Body Down
3. The Moon Shines Bright
4. Soul Cake
5. Spencer The Rover
6. Jasper Sea
7. Sweet Sixteen
8. Turtle Dove
9. Worthy Wood
10. Balfanen

Sam Lee discography