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Trembling Bells – Abandoned Love

"Abandoned Love"

Trembling Bells – Abandoned Love
04 May 2010, 11:00 Written by Matt Poacher
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In a striking passage in White Bicycles, Joe Boyd muses on the fact that the British seem at odds with their musical and cultural past, afraid of it even ”“ something he puts down to a misunderstanding or misremembering of the facts of that history: our collective musical unconscious isn’t one channelled through ‘hey nonny nonny’ verse forms and gurning Morris men (though even that is misunderstood to a certain degree), rather it is one intimately tied to the genius loci of place and glazed by a fine mist of melancholy ”“ it's about our strangely paganised version of the Christ myth, the vagaries of the earth and the seasons, love unrequited, men lost at sea, at war, women lost in childbirth”¦ It’s a sweeping generalisation, but you wonder if this misremembering and misrepresentation is a typically British coping mechanism ”“ one that turns away from high seriousness and prefers a pantomime grotesque instead?All that said, this stuff is suffused in our culture ”“ we cultivate that melancholy to certain degree, however displaced it might be; and there is always a more obvious strain of remembrance, one that runs throughout our musical and literary history: it’s in Hardy and Vaughan Williams, it’s in Cecil Sharp and Stevie Smith. Not to mention Fairport Convention”¦ Which is where Trembling Bells come in. Rob Young in his excellent piece in a recent edition of The Wire rightly located Trembling Bells - and the band’s constituent parts (Alex Nielson, Lavinia Blackwall, Mike Hastings, Simon Shaw) ”“ somewhere close to the centre of a current resurgence of interest in the folk traditions of the British Isles, something Alasdair Roberts has archly called the ‘Wyrd Meme’. They’re an odd propostion - clad in their folk finery, bearing sackbuts and psalterys, as if they're messing with that sense of pantomime grotesquery ”“ but like the Fairports (and their other great precursor, The Incredible String Band) they’ve got a manic energy about them, and come at the material from a place of integrity but also with what appears to be a wide smile. They make serious music, but it never feels weighed down.Carbeth that came out last year was a wild galloping thing, built around the twin voices of Blackwall and Nielson ”“ the former the very embodiment of that wildness, the latter a softer more lugubrious whisper. The sound, which did threaten to burst at the seams at times, was part early music and part rollicking clatter, all held together (if that’s the right way of putting it) by the rhythm section of Shaw on bass and Nielson, whose underplayed virtuoso drumming was a highlight ”“ a style developed over years of playing in free jazz and improv groups. If anything, Abandoned Love has reigned in the excesses of that record - it feels less flighty, more focussed. The themes are similar and range of instrumentation is equally recondite, of course, but they’ve gained a real edge. It feels like a record born of touring, if anything ”“ honed and sharp. Tracks like ‘Ravenna’ and ‘Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart’ have got a real groove about them; the latter seems to graft ‘Bad Moon Rising’ onto some lost Etta James record, all warmed by Mike Hasting’s buzzing guitar. Yet there are also those signature ballads, songs that feel like old old music, songs left in the land, handed down from generation to generation. ‘Darling’ is a beautiful lament showcasing just how much Blackwall has learnt to control her astonishing voice; ‘September is the Month of Death’ (which could be a response to the aforementioned ISB’s ‘October Song’?) has the feel of a standard, with the brass section and organ interplay like a great undertow beneath Blackwall’s autumnal lament.In light of all this it’s probably no great surprise that Joe Boyd has endorsed Trembling Bells. They take on the tradition with a deftness and playfulness that both revives the central themes and undercuts it enough for it to remain light and warm. There simply isn’t a place for fear on Abandoned Love ”“ it's a record that cleaves to the anxiety of tradition, realising that within that tradition is both a sublimity of knowledge and an endless fount of stories to share. Pass the mead.
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