Tuesday, 27 December 2016

SOUTHERN TENANT FOLK UNION

CD Review

Join Forces


Without even listening to Southern Tenant Folk Union's seventh album you have to give the Edinburgh outfit brownie points for producing an overtly politically motivated disc.

Craig MacFadyen, Pat McGarvey, Rory Butler,
Katherine Stewart and Steve Fivey
The tracks inspired by the return to power of the Tories and produced in part during the turmoil of leadership battles in the Labour party, the run up to Brexit and the US Presidential process, this album was born during some serious political ferment.
It opens with Rory Butler's composition To The War which in some ways is an old fashioned protest song about our complicity and financial involvement in unnecessary wars. Butler's voice has a raw quality and with the layers of fiddle, banjo and guitar the whole track has an under-produced feel to it, which is a good thing.
Northern Ireland's Pat McGarvey, who was the banjo player on the opening song,  provides the next track, The Media Attack. The song questions the validity of information and how reliable the media is especially in this digital age. It has a jumpy beat which has shades of sideshow music but with a sinister undertone. Butler's style of singing here takes on a weary tone and there are some lovely gypsy violin inserts from Katherine Stewart.
With the title track McGarvey pulls no punches with the lyrics, going straight for jugular with lines such as "Both may be intolerant, both have bomb making knowledge, Yeah they seem to fit in wherever they go."  The tune has a slightly chaotic sound to it which is all brought together by Butler's singing of how suspicions and fear can lead to all sorts of problems worldwide.
The much softer ballad Ash, which has a clear bluegrass sound, is a cryptic song using tree metaphors for the way society is run. The gently plodding of the banjo and fiddle make this a strangely relaxing track to listen to.
They slow things down even more for the thoughtful My Grandfather's Father where Butler's gentle and distinctive tones spend the first part singing a Capella as he lays out his family history in part, exploring how each of us shaped by our ancestors. The musical side is also kept to a minimum to great effect which somehow makes you listen more intently to the lyrics and it's only towards the end when the cadence picks up and is more jig-like.
Once again the sincerity of modern-day politics is under scrutiny with Were You Faking When You Kissed Her? On the surface it's a light bluegrass tune but as you unravel the words you realise it's quite cynical and cutting in the questions it asks. Once again the use of the banjo and fiddle are used to great effect with the guitar keeping the time as it rolls along.
Carefully Does It is another cryptic song which is open to interpretation and, of course, depending upon the place you are listening from can talk about social conditioning, isolation, insecurity, twisted values and even about being tired of life.
The title of What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul? pretty much does what it says on the tin. If this were a song from the punk era, the cutting remarks would have been spat out or hammered into their audience. But Butler's soft and almost world weary style of singing somehow make the lyrics more poignant and incisive. You get the feeling of someone who has just had enough and with nothing else left to lose might as well lay his cards on the table.
One of the elements which impresses on this track and many of the previous is the sparing use of the instruments. Butler's voice has a really recognisable tone and style which doesn't rely on power or projection and so it would be easy for the instruments to overpower him but the harmony of the group is extremely noticeable.
It was inevitable that after shining the light on the powers that be he should turn the focus on the masses who help keep those powers in place. What Kind of Worker Do You Want To Be? is a song of hegemony and as you see employment rights being eroded, unions being declawed and more and more of the wealth ending up in fewer and fewer hands then the question of everyone's part in the process is called into question.
The song has a juke joint feel to it with the bumping sound of Craig MacFadyen's double bass pushing things along. Once again what you would expect would be an angry song is put across in that gentle, unassuming style which STFU favour and this time with the big finish tagged on. In the midst of all this comes an instrumental Islay Crossing in three parts, Islay Crossing, Badenscallie Swallie and Dealer's Choice.
They all have a clear Celtic feel with Stewart's fiddle getting a good work out and each section taking it up a notch from the previous. The bluegrass sound Our Revolution Will One Day Come, which has the feel of being lifted straight from the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, shows there is still hope of change and that cynicism hasn't take over completely. Adam Bulley's mandolin kicks things off with a travelling beat and the song rolls along at a fair old pace.
The new album
The final track goes out with a sleepy, we-are-now-done feel to it. Happy As We Both Can Be is close to a lullaby and you can almost see the band walking off into the distance as the sound of their singing fades.
STFU have put together an album which is cutting, witty, insightful, questioning, worried and hopeful and they have done it all in a way which doesn't scream at the listener or alienate them with blame. But what does come across is how we are all part of the scheme, we are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution.
It's only when we stop pointing the finger, take on our responsibilities, and not just exercise our rights, and bring to account those who won't that change will come. The messages which come from the album are worthy of heeding and it bodes well that a group such STFU has decided to make their music political and more power to their elbow for doing so when so many folk musicians have ignored that strand of society .

Join Forces is available now from the band's website, through high street shops and Proper Music Distributors.

The band are on tour in the New Year beginning on January 26 at  Celtic Connections@Oran Mor, Byres Road, Glasgow. Doors open 7pm and tickets are £14. The band will be on stage around 7.30pm as support for Sinderins and they will be playing the Festival Club on the same night. Then the following night, January 26 they are at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Fife. Show starts 7pm and tickets are £14 and £12. On January 30 they are back to Glasgow for  Celtic Connections@The Hug & Pint171 Great Western Rd. Show again starts 7pm and tickets are £10 in advance or £12 on the door.
Moving in to February on the eighth they play Hebden Bridge Trades ClubHolme St, Yorkshire. Doors open 8pm with the band on stage around 8.30pm and tickets are £12 or £10 for members plus a booking fee. on February 9 they are in Bedfordshire, at the Place TheatreBradgate Rd, Bedford. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £12 in advance. On February 10 they appear at Lowdham Village HallMain St, Lowdham, Nottinghamshire. Show starts 8pm and tickets are £12.50. Following that on February 11
they play Bridport Arts Centre9 South Street. Bridport, Dorset. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £12 or £10 with concessions plus £1.50 booking fee. On February 24 they are off to Pontardawe Arts CentreHerbert Street. Pontardawe, Neath Port Talbot. Show starts 7.30pm. Admission: tbc. The following night on February 25 they can be found at South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading, Berkshire. Show starts 8pm and tickets are £15.