There are some bands that should only ever be heard on record, and some that should only be heard live. I'd put The National and Death Cab For Cutie squarely in the first camp; two of my favourite bands, to be sure, but ones that only reach their full potential in the studio. A band I'd previously put in the latter camp is the rowdy folk orchestra/collective Bellowhead.
Bellowhead is made up of 11 fantastic instrumentalists, ranging from folk staples like fiddles, melodeons and bouzouki to more outré selections like a helicon and oboe. Their live shows are rowdy, frenetic and never less than thoroughly entertaining, and if you only take one thing from a Bellowhead concert it's that traditional English folk music is all about dancing. For a beard-scratching pedagogue like myself, this has proved to be a decidedly non-trivial obstacle to enjoying their music in the decidedly sedentary comfort of my own home.
Live, Bellowhead are fantastically skilful; their sound is brash, bold and powerful, but the band are tight enough to ensure every instrument gets a chance to show itself off during the course of a show, and they show a masterful command of dynamics – diving from delicate moment to bombastic frenzy with sure-footedness and confidence. On record, however, they've struggled to meet the high standard their live shows have set. The raw power is lost, the dynamics disappear, and the music sounds flat as a result.
In that light, I'm overjoyed to announce that their latest LP, Broadside, bucks that trend, and does so in fine fashion. I'm well over a year late in coving this record, but I'm taking the opportunity of their autumn tour as an excuse to treat it as a new release. This is an album with breadth and depth to rival the best studio magicians, and while it still lacks the raw gut-punch of their live shows it compensates in other ways. On Broadside we're able to experience the finer details of the band's performance that get crowded out of the live show. The clarity of the recorded sound – so often a downside for Bellowhead albums – has been harnessed to great effect, adding to the music rather than taking away from it.
They've worked with producer John Leckie before, and it sounds like he really earned his fee for Broadside, but the true moments of quality come from the arrangements. When the oboe and bass clarinet come to the fore the music could have been written by Micheal Nyman. When the tuba, helicon, and the rest of the horns start ratcheting up the tension we could be listening to Hans Zimmer's Inception score. Folk song melodies are by their closed nature notoriously hard to break apart, add to, or re-harmonize, yet Bellowhead consistently find new ground and new life in the traditional canon.