CD: Seth Lakeman, Poor Man's Heaven


Has there ever been a musical genre as prickly and suspicious of mainstream success as English folk? Battered by decades of public mockery, folkies understandably pulled up the drawbridge and developed a fiercely protective siege mentality long ago. The merest hint of wider interest in one of their artists and they're filling their pewter tankards with bile and singing sell-out in harmony. Their attitude to major labels makes Ian McKaye of DIY diehards Fugazi look like Simon Cowell.

So you have to be impressed by the bravery of 31-year-old fiddle-playing singer-songwriter Seth Lakeman. He currently finds himself an unlikely hot priority over at Relentless, the label that brought the world Joss Stone, Daniel Bedingfield and legendary unaccompanied traditional singers So Solid Crew. He comes from solid stock - he performed with his parents' family folk band, then with his siblings as the Lakeman Brothers, then with Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon in the short-lived Equation - but folkies have never let a small matter like having paid your dues prevent them from staging a walkout if they deem you to have strayed, as Eliza Carthy can ruefully attest. She may be anointed folk royalty, but they deserted her in droves when she signed to Warners and went the more straightforward singer-songwriter route.

Despite the general public's dismissive try-anything-once-except-incest-and-morris-dancing attitude to anything that smacks too much of the maypole and wassail, you can see why a major label thinks it can make Lakeman a star. For one thing, he's a lavishly talented musician - you don't get anywhere on the folk scene stumbling around and making a racket like the Horrors. Perhaps more importantly, in a genre where pulchritude is hardly prized, Lakeman is ruggedly handsome. His songs also tend to have a slightly bodice-ripping bent, peopled as they are by dashing pirates, fearless highwaymen, Heathcliff types brooding on the moors and, at one particularly imaginative juncture on Poor Man's Heaven, a lifeboatman risking life and limb to rescue a maiden whose hair has become entangled in the rigging of her yacht. The ladies have certainly gone for

James Blunt, with his romantic aristo background, Sandhurst education and heroic war record, so why not a kind of Soil Association-certified version, born, as his press release puts it, on "gloriously wild Dartmoor"? If Blunt is the Mr Darcy of pop, then perhaps there's room in the market for Mellors the gamekeeper as well.

Nevertheless, listening to Poor Man's Heaven, you're struck by the fact that it will not be that easy a sell. Lakeman has been at pains to point out that the album is no less acoustic than his earlier material, but the traditional songs are gone and the production is clearly aimed at fording the gulf between the Mike Harding Show and the rest of Radio 2: the bodhran booms like a stadium-rock snare, while the slide-guitar riff on Feather in a Storm bears a passing resemblance to Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, the song that transformed his labelmate KT Tunstall from a scion of the merrily underachieving new-folk Fence Collective into a Parkinson-friendly platinum seller. A great deal of time has clearly been expended puzzling over how to flog a sound largely based around frantic folk fiddle playing to Britain's least adventurous record-buyers. Emphasise the similarity to country and western by supporting it with banjo and jew's harp? Make it sound a little like Bollywood strings?

The result is polished, but it's often hard not to feel that something has been lost in translation: at its worst, Poor Man's Heaven sounds like a slightly tweedier version of umpteen MOR singer-songwriters. In fairness, that may be the point, but there's no doubt the album is at its best when it's at its most raw, when it stops worrying too much about charming those in charge of radio playlists and lets Lakeman's natural instinct for eeriness shine through. There's a thrashing, off-kilter oddness about the title track and a creepy relentlessness about The Hurlers that chafes appealingly against the production. Solomon Brown is just fantastic - a gripping, heartbreaking retelling of the 1981 Penlee disaster.

Nevertheless, Poor Man's Heaven is nothing like the disaster you suspect the hardcore trad arrs would love it to be. If it's less characterful than Kitty Jay, the unassuming Mercury-nominated album Lakeman recorded in his kitchen for £300, then it's infinitely more characterful than most singer-songwriter albums aimed at the Tesco market. Whether the Tesco market will make anything of it - and what Lakeman's old fanbase will make of it if they do - remains to be seen.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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