Rob St.John & the Coven Choir: Charcoal Black & the Bonnie Grey/Shallow Brown

Come all you pretenders and hear folk music the way it should be played.

Rating: 8.1 out of 10
The cover image of Charcoal Black & the Bonnie Grey/Shallow Brown by Rob St.John & the Coven Choir

Rob St.John has always been a favourite here at Eaten by Monsters, and new releases of his are eagerly awaited and avidly consumed. It's always been clear, however, that his music is very much an acquired taste. To the unprepared, his ghostlike baritone and the meandering, lilting nature of his records can easily sweep far over their heads.

Thankfully for St.John and those of us who follow his efforts, he is not short of supporters and chief amongst those is Matthew Young from Song, by Toad. A contrary little fucker if ever there was one[1], it's clear Young would release records like this even if it lost him money. So this new 7" single is just the latest in a string of great records from St.John, although with this one it feels like there was something different in the mix.

What we have in evidence here is record with far more drive that we're used to. And by that I don't mean a new commercial ambition, but a musical push that seems a little sharper. There's a pulsing, brooding, and inexorable momentum to the a-side, Charcoal Black & the Bonnie Grey. This track, an old Lancastrian fieldsong from the archives of Cecil Sharp, has a sinister undertow and a malevolent sense of purpose; a combined effect of the lyrics, the delivery, and the sweeping, swelling, swirling bedding from the instrumentation. What's really great is that all this new ferocity comes not at the expense of St.John's hushed and reverent pastoral stylings, but as an addition to them.

It's also worth noting that both the tracks on this record come from the established English folk tradition; as mentioned above, Charcoal... is one of the many songs collected for posterity by Sharp, and the other track here, Shallow Brown, comes from the archive of Percy Grainger, the other great collector of folk songs of the English working class. Their interpretations by St.John and his accomplices are far from the stuffy finger-in-ear pretensions of Ewan MacColl, but equally far from the Americana-inspired waistcoat-wearing pansies that have sprung up in the wake of the dreaded Mumfords.

This is the English folk tradition alive and well, fresh and dangerous.

The single comes out officially on May Day, but if like me you've pre-ordered it then the 7" should have arrived by now. If Rob St.John's past efforts have been too fey for your tastes, then I doubt the b-side will do much to change your mind, but Charcoal... could well be the introduction that you've been looking for. Listen to it, absorb it, live it, then return to the rest of his music with more finely trained ears and bask in its loveliness.

  1. I tried leaving out the profanity, but it's essential to provide a full flavour of the man. ↩︎

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