London folk band Stick in the Wheel begin their new album with the lively and traditional ‘Over Again’, with its looping guitar melodies, pulsing and vividly textured instrumentation, and a driving rhythm that is both deeply historical and fresh. Almost the band’s statement of intent, this song utilises simple and catchy melodies that seem to echo even the most endearing folk songs, but with an intensity that foreshadows the distinctly modern electronic experimentation of the album.
Grimy narratives in a similar vein to some of The Pogues’ greatest work are explored
This selling point of blending the classic and the modern is also a bit of a pitfall, with this great track being followed by the conventional and less instrumentally diverse ‘Weaving Song’, which is a perfectly competent song, but represents a band wrestling between these two ideals. Of course, vocalist Nicola Kearey’s brilliant work remains a constant throughout, with a sound that ranges from sorrowful and glum, to roaring and rapid. She heightens the band’s versatile sound through an accent that carefully acknowledges the potentially urban sound of folk vocals. The band capitalise on this contrast, with grimy narratives being explored in a similar vein to some of The Pogues’ greatest work.
This is not folk-punk though, and title track ‘Follow Them True’ uses a jarring distortion effect that makes the howling vocals screech against the slow and booming drum sounds. Much can be said about the band’s noble attempt to merge these styles, yet it is mostly the great promise of this that is exciting.
‘Roving Blade’ reincorporates the incessant repeated guitar melodies that make ‘Over Again’ such a great opening track, only to be followed by the vocal-only ‘Unquiet Grave’, a song which both avoids the traditional mythology of ‘Roving Blade’, and the scandalous adventure and decadence of ‘White Copper Alley’. Instead, “I’m here in my unquiet grave / But I can’t rest” are the abstract and sad lyrics that colour a track that is incredibly bare. In a testament to the band, it totally works, with the haunting lyrics being transformed into something altogether more powerful by Kearey, who becomes strangely tender, perfectly highlighting the inescapable tragedy of the narrative.
The barrier between folk and electronic music is completely deconstructed
The album continues through tradition with the hopeful and escalating strings of ‘Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green’ to the romping sing-a-long dialogue of ‘Poor Old Horse’, which produce the same ambivalence as ‘Weaving Song’, despite also being quite enjoyable songs. Ultimately, they lack the great achievement of the album in its seemingly unrivalled fusion of folk and electronic. There are many great modern folk groups, but it is the traditional vocal style that shows a band that will not let go of the past, and we’re lucky that they don’t have to.
“Red Carnation” explores droning guitar sounds that are suggestive of lo-fi indie songs, finding purpose in the disparity between a layer of feedback and the more emotive string sections that accentuate earlier songs on the album. With the last track, ‘As I Roved Out’, the barrier between folk and electronic music is completely deconstructed, with clapping sounds becoming the shifting beats of a finale that wouldn’t be out of place on a trip-hop album.
Stick in the Wheel, despite having produced an excellent album, ultimately leave us wondering where they will go next, especially after an album that is incredibly dissonant with its two genres. They always execute the blend well, but it is almost never a direct amalgamation of both.