It’s easy to become jaded when listening to new bands, and to focus too much on the search for some breathtakingly original new sound, only to be disappointed when what you hear doesn’t correspond to some vague, totally subjective ideal. Unless madness is your aim, or notoriety, it doesn’t pay to overlook those artists who don’t particularly do anything different, but still manage to do it very well.
So, it is not a criticism at all to say that Beneath Our Humble Soil does not explore any new territories in the world of modern folk music, but it is an excellent album: crisply produced, warmly performed and thoroughly engaging. In a genre that arguably has more than its fair share of what might be called ‘radio-friendly’ artists, the Willows are better than most.
Apparently recorded by the band themselves in a variety of ‘living rooms, hotels and garages’, the album has a satisfyingly unaffected, immediate quality, and suggests the work of a formidable live act. The sound is polished and upbeat: a down-homey confection of acoustic guitars, banjos and fiddles, led by singer Jade Ward, who has the kind of husky, seductive voice that only a statue could ignore.
Although they hail from Cambridgeshire, the Willows are more in the alt-country mould common to the US, which sometimes manifests itself in the occasional awkward Americanism peppering the lyrics, and you might argue that songs about dustbowls and ‘workin’ for the company’ can sound a bit wan in 2013. However, lines such as ‘In the mornings I work for the wrong man/ I work for a rich man/ but in the evenings I lay with a good man/I lay with a poor man’ can’t help but have some resonance in today’s increasingly divided, top-down society.
From the intense ‘Cap in Hand’, through the barnstorming ‘The Outlaw’, to the elegiac ‘Absent Friends’, the tracks frequently feature strong narrative threads, which makes for compelling listening after the initial thrill of the memorable hooks subside. For aficionados, this is a record guaranteed to merit innumerable listens.
Beneath Our Humble Soil might be the sort of album that gets lost in the folk/alt-country wasteland, and that would be a shame, because there is much to recommend it.
Words: James Robinson