Bird in the Belly : Neighbours and Sisters18.10.2019 : GF*M Records
Bird in the Belly released their debut album, The Crowing, in 2018, delivering on their founding promise to record songs and stories never, or rarely, recorded before. Amongst many plaudits, The Crowing was the Sunday Express' folk album of the year.
The Brighton-based band are a collective project - formed by folk-duo Hickory Signals (Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti), Ben ‘Jinnwoo’ Webb and multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor. Their second album, Neighbours and Sisters, treads a liminal line between stark revivalist interpretations and contemporary folk-noir.
Eight of the songs were mined from either the Roud Folk Song Index or the Bodleian Broadside Ballad Archive. The other two are self-penned, one each from Webb and Ward. All are remarkable - raw, vivid, magical music from the shadows of a nineteenth century back alley grog shop.
From its first austere guitar notes, there is a gothic, winter splendour to Robin & Starling, the album's opening track; and if there is louche swing to the next piece, album highlight Coal Black Wine, its theme of death keeps the mood properly sombre.
If you want light relief, then All You Females, the story of the crimes of a Workhouse Master, isn’t offering it - but Laura Ward’s initially unaccompanied vocal leads into a detailed narration of the wrongs wrought, with a dark, whirling majesty brought to the proceedings by the instrumental arrangement.
Next, Webb and Ward share the lead on Bright Light, the melancholy of a WWI soldier longing for home powerfully illustrated - with Webb's voice almost cracking with emotion,
"Bright light burns in the window,
Of the tiny little house upon the hill,
Oh the lights will burn,
And the hearts will yearn,
They always will,
'Til I return."
The coal black mood then continues.
With a tambourine beat that seems to count down the time until a final, fatal event, New Gate Stone is about the last, simple testament of prisoners writing their name on the prison's walls the day before hanging.
They Slept in the Frozen River aligns, as its title suggests, with its morbid forerunners, laying out a cautionary tale of the consequences for young lovers of being led astray by passion.
Based on The Kissing Lasses of Yarmouth, Phoebe to Phyllis is about poverty coercing women into prostitution, and has an affecting pathos in its bones.
Tobacco maps the fate of the plant when grown for a pipe with human frailty and mortality. The song waltzes by embellished brightly by Pryor’s violin and interweaving vocals from Webb and Ward, the former's voice sounding as old as Sir Walter Raleigh.
The album closes with the two self-written tracks.
Sung by its author Laura Ward, Bees is a guitar and banjo driven piece written around the superstitions of bee-keeping (its first two verses are Sussex proverbs). Lastly, 45 George Street was written by Webb. It tells the story of the last men in England executed for sodomy, convicted on a landlord’s keyhole witnessed evidence. Ronchetti's shruti box gives a sinister undertow to the unfolding tragedy.
As the last note withers into a grave-still silence, there is no conclusion left but that Neighbours and Sisters is riveting, bleak social history with a modern resonance and a folk album of stone-heavy heft.
As a group they manage to find the drama in the stories they are performing; Bird in the Belly are a genuine delight, the English match to Dublin’s Lankum, with Ben Webb’s vocals as distinct as Radie Peat’s and the songs they sing, whether found or written, just as intense, hypnotic and true-hearted.
BIRD IN THE BELLY I Robin & Starling