Sam Lee: Old Wow review – Britain's nature crisis in gnarly song

(Cooking Vinyl)
Lee’s twee-free third album, produced by Bernard Butler and featuring Liz Fraser, is a stark reminder of this country’s environmental concerns

Sam Lee has always sat slightly awkwardly within folk music. He has a raffish campness live, that betrays his past as a burlesque dancer. He had a Top 20 single last year when he edited birdsong together for the RSPB’s Let Nature Sing. He’s now made an album produced by guitar demigod Bernard Butler, with guest vocals from the Cocteau Twins’ rarely heard Liz Fraser. Such cheek only reveals his desire to project his love of folk further.

Old Wow is Lee’s phrase about the enduring power of nature. But the crisis that surrounds it twists its gnarly roots around these songs. His choices are obviously political: in Turtle Dove, he isn’t mourning a metaphorical lover, as many have before him, but the actual bird, which is facing extinction. In The Moon Shines Bright, a song Lee collected from Gypsy singer Freda Black, he mourns “our time is not long / Time’s an old folk song”, as Liz Fraser sings a fragment of Scottish ballad Wild Mountain Thyme around him, high and eerie like a nightingale, about the summertime blooming. The effect is urgent, far from twee.

Butler has produced Old Wow like a soul record, full of space and warmth. For some, it will be too much: Lay This Body Down marries a Fleet Foxes-like intro with Bad Seeds slink. But this treatment fills Lee’s clear, precise diction with a stark, longing quality that carefully handles and never sugarcoats its subjects. Add a sleepy Sunday-morning John Martyn jazz vibe, all walking bass, piano and shivery strings, and the effect is exquisite. We get, very clearly just what could be lost.

This month’s other picks

The eponymous debut album from Bonny Light Horseman (37d03d Records), a US folk supergroup featuring the Grammy-winning Anaïs Mitchell, producer Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, the National), and the Fruit Bats’ Eric D Johnson. The results of this are collaboration are well-scrubbed, often too-shiny versions of traditional songs: imagine late 70s Fleetwood Mac burrowing into their 60s folk roots. The best track is Bright Morning Stars with Justin Vernon, where the harmony singing digs deep.

The debut album by Owen Shiers, who records as Cynefin, rubberstamps a stunning new talent. Dilyn Afon (Astar Artes) translates as Following a River, and this Welsh-language album explores his home valley in West Wales through gorgeous jazz-folk arrangements, deep storytelling, and tender vocals. Also don’t miss the Breath’s brilliant Ríoghnach Connolly joining Band of Burns on their debut studio album, The Thread (Ord Ban Music).

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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