The first 10: Seth Lakeman, Poor Mans Heaven; Eliza Carthy, Dreams of Breathing Underwater

Neil Spencer hears two leading folk traditionalists face up to the future in contrasting ways

Contrary to lazy perceptions, folk music gives you options. You can sing about old times to cutting edge backings, voice modern sensibilities to traditional accompaniment, or just deliver the same old songs in much the same old way for no other reason than they are there, as Martin Carthy eloquently put it.

The British folk boom of the past few years has done all three. Seth Lakeman, for example, has cut himself a fine career with tales of dastardly highwaymen and fine ladies set to gutsy rock-and-fiddle backings, his rhythmic, repetitive style owing much to his teenage years as a dance fan. Others have followed a parallel path - Jim Moray setting 'Early One Morning' to chiming guitars, or the Imagined Village giving the likes of 'John Barleycorn' a beat-heavy urban retread.

Like many of the young folk breed - Moray, Rachel Unthank - Lakeman comes from a folkie family (its one way to ensure tradition endures). Kitty Jay , his second album, recorded in a Dartmoor kitchen, landed him a Mercury nomination in 2005, since when hes played reluctant poster boy for young folk, nu-folk, call it what youwill.

Poor Mans Heaven , his fourth album, following 2006's Freedom Fields , has his virtues written large. A born storyteller, Lakeman regales us with tales of piracy and whale hunting (there's a coastal theme at play), encounters with tangle-haired temptresses and frightful demons roaming the moors. Lakeman's vocal style remains muscular but lithe, and together with his brother Sean, who plays and produces, has upgraded his sound nicely. It's still acoustic, dominated by Lakeman's fiddle playing, but the drums and bodhran thump louder, the guitars thrum more insistently, and there are some neat flourishes on banjo, slide guitar and mandolin.

The West Country again supplies many of the tales Lakeman is reworking. 'I'll Haunt You', for example, has the ghost of Lady Howard riding through Tavistock in a coach drawn by headless horses. 'Solomon Browne' pays moving tribute to those who perished in the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981. Only the title track, drawing on an American song from the Great Depression, strays elsewhere.

Like its predecessors, Poor Mans Heaven is a forceful evocation of Lakeman's realm, one in which everyone seems to be sporting a tri-cornered hat or a heaving bosom and in danger of their lives. It's a ripsnorter of a record that will slake the thirst of crowds roused by a season of his festival performances and fair play to that.

Still, after four albums of much the same fayre, our West Country hero might usefully stray into fresh songwriting territory next time, and lose the roll call of cliches which demand that eyes are always burning, nights always dark and dawns crimson.

In the years since she arrived as the only folk brat in view, back in the early 1990s, Eliza Carthy has tried on all of tradition's hats, rendering old airs with antique authenticity, flaying them within an inch of their lives with assorted bands, and putting them through the drum'n'bass rinse.

She's delivered an album of original songs that included lines such as 'I've given blow jobs on couches to men who didn't want me any more' that are definitely not in the Olney Hymnal, and collaborated with too many to mention, even, in fact especially, her parents.

You can feel that weight and wealth of experience on Dreams of Breathing Underwater , her most sophisticated album yet and one destined to win her a whole new set of admirers. Are its 11 original songs folk? Kind of. Theres a jocular squeezebox driving along 'Little Bigman', an acerbic description of a dead romance, and plenty of Eliza's trademark fiddle playing - mournful on 'Two Tears', sprightly on Rory McLeod's 'Hug You Like a Mountain', the only song not written byCarthy.

But there is also a chamber orchestra weaving elaborate arrangements, flourishes of mariachi brass on 'Mr Magnifico', and a music-hall flavour to 'Oranges and Seasalt', while several songs are elaborate explorations of relationship intrigue. Lavenders opens to a fiddle drone and an evocation of the 17th-century folk song 'Lavender Blue' but morphs brilliantly into a double-tracked vocal in which swimming and sexual passion entwine. Rows of Angels likewise dissects a burnt-out love affair with poetic grace, ending in a defiant declaration of independence.

Not all the risk-taking pays off. The bluesy electric guitar on 'Follow the Dollar 'is clumsy and makes for an unworthy opener, but the care and invention on display elsewhere is striking. Eliza may still sing in the same bold Yorkshire accent, but Dreams is the sound of her finding another voice.

Download: I'll Haunt You; Solomon Browne (Lakeman)/ Rows of Angels; Mr Magnifico; Lavenders (Carthy)


Neil Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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