The big problem with folk music is a lack of accessibility. It is a double-edged sword faced by musicians who have two choices: traditional songs in a traditional style, or new songs in a traditional style. Some get away with a third, often avoided, approach: to retell old stories in a new way (see Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby et al) but most stick to one of the common forms. This leads to a misinformed and unwarranted stigma which has listeners running for the hills. Thankfully Chris Wood is a veteran, a master and a prince among fools. Best known for his collaborations with Hugh Lupton and Andy Cutting, Wood has been going alone for a few years and with his latest solo album Handmade Life, it has reaffirmed his genius.
One thing Chris Wood does time and time again is makes contemporary events, delivered in a timeless yet old-as-time way, sound modern, and crucially, serious and relevant. This is the key to Handmade Life, and no more evident than on the powerful seven and a half minute centrepiece Hollow Point; brilliant storytelling (which is exactly what folk music mandates and why it exists - Wood is creating a song to stand the test of time about an important event in English history, fully expecting it to be taken up in years gone by a new breed of musicians) that doesn’t reveal its subject matter until you are drawn in. Starting with the dawn of just another day, as a man wakes from dreamy sleep and leaves his house. “It was a gorgeous summers morning; it was a gorgeous summers day. His cotton jacket was all he carried, as he walked out to face the day”, the story unfolds, and it is clear that something sinister is at work. A perfectly judged dark mysterious instrumental pause leads into the fourth minute and as the place names are dropped, anyone who follows the news will immediately realise what the song is about and what is about to happen. Wood repeats the opening verse after the powerful revelation, with more emotion and more relevance. An incredible song.
On the flipside of this, Spitfires is a beautiful picture of the British past and a perfect tribute to an iconic piece of history that is now open to abuse and misuse by those who may want to misrepresent. My Darling’s Downsized is a direct open-hearted love song far removed from Wood’s usual spitting anti-capitalist rhetoric with lines like “Now the sun in the morning somehow seems brighter, and everything’s righter than it was before; The coffee is richer, the eggs over easier; The breeze is just breezier, there’s cuddles galore”. It’s the knowing vocal inflections coupled with the delicate brass arrangement that breaths real-life into the song. Wood can’t resist fuelling the fire with “…my love for her cannot be overstated. It’s deep and it’s not final salary related”. Ever the protester even in the most tender of moments. Superb.
Much of Handmade Life is about removing oneself from enforced society. Closer The Grand Correction is another brilliant tale, this of a man embracing self-sufficiency. After offensively namedropping ’fatty’ Ray Mears (assumed to be ironic as Mears is more of a survivalist - maybe Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall would have been a more accurate target) the song veers from food and drink to home-protection and into the latest banking crisis and recession. “And how strange then to call your accounting software ‘Sage’” is penned by someone who maybe outside the system but clearly aware of what it is and how destructive it can be. Choosing to end by being less than flattering for former Prime Minister Thatcher (“the vicious old spiv”), this is the song Billy Bragg never wrote. On an album of such poise and quality any problems are easily and obviously highlighted. In the second half Caesar suffers terribly from a horrible carnival-esque arrangement and some questionable vocals. It is the only issue on an otherwise engaging album.
Chris Wood’s overtly political stance may be a hard (and bitter) pill to swallow but you can’t fault the method. The juxtaposition of old and new, hard and soft, is a neat diversion tactic, enveloping the tough issues in a subtle controlled sound without compromising punch. The songs on Handmade Life are beautifully judged (late on the album drifts perfectly from the delicacy of Johnny East into the dark swirling seas of maritime life captured in Turtle Soup) and Wood breaks with previous convention to fill the sound with an exceptional group of musicians Andy Gangadeen, Robert Jarvis, Barney Morse Brown and Danny Wood. They all let Wood keep the stage while complementing his powerful observations perfectly. Anyone who thinks folk music is one-dimensional, irrelevant and out of touch should probably start here. Truly a master at work.
-- CS (for Altsounds)