Friday 12 September 2014


CD Review

Steer In The Night

There is something wonderfully chilled out and mellow about TODS and sometimes their sound wouldn't be out of place in the jazz and beatnik gatherings of the 50s.

Robin Beatty
Somehow they have managed to capture that essence and yet keep very much a contemporary folk feel to what is a full, colourful and innovative sound from essentially a small orchestra who have the intricate sound of The Moulettes joined with the versatility of Bellowhead but without their brashness.
Steer In the Night was recorded while the septet of Robin Beatty, Helen Lancaster, Samantha Norman, Aaron Diaz, Laura Carter, Adam Jarvis and Jim Molyneux was on tour in London, Bristol and Birmingham and if you were at any of those gigs you will already know the engaging sound they produce using a wide range of instruments and gizmos. There are other genres such as funk, classical and jazz which can claim them for their own camps but there is still a definite strand of folk in there, mostly lurking in the inspirations which are drawn from the very fabric of life in which they wrap themselves.
The album opens with Blue Horse from drummer Molyneux and which was inspired by his Citroen Berlingo. This track is almost the TODS setting out their stall and straight from the off letting everyone know the range of sounds and styles they can produce and integrate into their performance.
There is the funked up and laid back jazz sound of Diaz on trumpet mixed with Lancaster and Norman on violin driven underneath by Molyneux on skins.
Craigie Hill is the first of the tracks which features Beatty's distinctive and slightly high pitched but gritty singing style.
Diaz gives this track an almost lazy feel with his mellow horn playing which is so just so cool, this is wrapped around by the gentle undertone of Norman and Lancaster on the strings and goes on a wonderfully understated and smooth slide into the ether.
The Enlli light is another of the instrumentals they do so well. This time there is more of a Celtic feel about it and while you can hear it's dyed-in-the-wool folk it does have a clean modern beat to it which sees it skip along.
Like so many of TODS offerings there are what are almost musical interludes where they take the music off at a tangent as if telling a story within a story before bringing the whole thing back to the main sound, and this is what happens with this track. You almost get a sensory overload with the mixture of sounds manoeuvring in and out the track.
The Old Dance School
Beatty's voice comes back for one of their well-known tracks, Sula Sgier, which is actually about a granite rock where gannets gather.
Taking advantage of this the locals from Ness on the Scottish mainland harvest and eat them in an annual ritual which has more than put the RSPB's nose out of joint but they refuse to give up their tradition.
This is a narrative tune telling of the ritual without taking sides, it has that Celtic sound thanks to the strings section but mostly it's Beatty's voice telling the story. Sounding not unlike Blazing Fiddles with its opening, From The Air is another of TODS' trademark instrumentals where they create a rich vortex of sound which dips and peaks through myriad phases to take you on a musical boat ride.
There are all the elements associated with TODS, cool jazz brass and the darting and erratic sounds of the fiddles pushing the melody along.
They slow it right down for Silver Tide with the gorgeously deep sound of Lancaster's viola which brings that rich, haunting sound that just carries you away on a cloud of sound or on the back of a seabird skimming just above the crests of the ocean.
It almost has the quality of a lullaby but never quite lets you drift into slumber, the gorgeous strands of sound keeping you aware of your senses.
Molyneux's accompaniment on the accordion mixed with Carter's whistle playing brings a magical quality to the whole proceedings.
Of all the professions you could write a tune about taxidermy is perhaps one of the more obscure. The track, written by Robin Beatty, is as unorthodox as the title and the inspiration, which was a recently deceased hare Beatty encountered and instead of walking on like most people, he took the cadaver to be stuffed.
It starts off quite sombre which as you can imagine is mourning for the dead animal but then picks up almost as if the tune is revisiting the vibrancy of the hare while it was still alive.
This is a more jazzy number than most on the album and Diaz is given free reign almost defying the pace which is being set by the drums and fiddles.
The new live album
The bands voices and harmonies come back for The Real Thing. Beatty is up front with the singing with Lancaster and Carter providing much of the backing harmonies.
This is about as fast-paced as TODS gets with precise folky inserts from the fiddles adding little gems to enjoy between the verses.
The noticeable thing about their voices is they never quite blend smoothly which gives them a very individual sound as a whole but which keeps clear boundaries between their individual vocals.
North Edge is a beautiful old-style Celtic sound through which comes Beatty's slightly effeminate tones. The sound fills and empties like a bellows where you have a full strand of notes which then drop off to a minimal tune just discernible under Beatty's singing. The gentle guitar and precise pizzicato opening to Wen is just the start of the build of another instrumental which has very simple but effective rhythms all underpinned by the gentle growl of Jarvis' double bass while Carter is allowed to play with the shrill whistle to dance in between the other instruments. This gives ways to a Tubular Bells-style insert which lasts for some time and builds up slowly like a surfing wave before crashing over and exposing the fiddle playing and whistle which carries the tune on to the finale which goes out with a slightly ethereal almost sinister sound created by Diaz on his gadgetry.
This segues into the traditional tune of John Ball.
TODS version has a minimal but effective opening with just the merest hints of the instruments underneath Beatty's singing. This is one the only track where the voices take star billing and it works very effectively with Beatty's distinctive, almost smoky tones taking pride of place and is held up yet again by some unobtrusive but distinctive harmonising.
Swifts and Martins is a real end of gig tune with the whole band clearly just having fun and almost jamming with this fast-paced and toe-tapping tune which has a built-in encore.
This album is as close as you will get to enjoying TODS live without actually attending a concert. In the collection you get the feel for the talent and precision with which they perform. They have the ability to be eclectic and experimental without once letting go of their love of folk.

Steer In The Night: Live is available now from the band's website.

The Old Dance School will be playing the Theatre Severn, Shewsbury on October 23; The Red Lion, King's Heath, Birmingham on October 29; The Courtyard Theatre, Hereford on November 1; Artrix, Bromsgrove November 2 and Subscription Rooms, Stroud on November 7

The Mike Harding Folk Show

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