Southern Tenant Folk Union : Join Forces2016 : Johnny Rock Records
Folk songs used to be dense with politics - most palpably either with the seething music of the 80s, starting perhaps with the short, sharp, shock, post punk folk of Billy Bragg; or the more moral and codified messages found in the songs of the early 60s folk revival.
It's a shame it is not always so - a crafted, creatively framed political point can be orders of magnitude more effective than an indignant Twitter storm, political speech or a newspaper editorial.
This is Edinburgh based Southern Tenant Folk Union's seventh album; they are a band who write and sing about what is going on around them in a very immediate and incisive way, but rely on the traditional musical forms of folk and bluegrass to frame their message.
The album was written and recorded in the period that started with the 2015 general election result and stretched to the Brexit referendum and its fallout; partly because of this context it is a provoking and challenging album, and enormously engaging. It is also musically accomplished, there is a huge organic dynamism within the band captured in the songs - and they certainly can write a tune.
They get straight to productive work - the rueful vocal of guitarist and singer Rory Butler leads the first song, To the War, which he also wrote, about how we are all complicit in war and poverty; it's brilliantly done and really takes flight when Pat McGarvey's insistent banjo and Katherine Stewart's fiddle join the mix.
Second song The Media Attack has a pop sensibility, with a real swing, but despite the joie de vivre of the music it doesn't skirt around its target. In similar vein title track Join Forces gets at the nub of the futility of conflict, but does it within a slab of exquisite bluegrass pop.
The power and innate rhythms of this opening trio are never lost; the band range across traditional sounding sets (the evocative and intricate The Islay Crossing), 60s-style 'ask a fundamental question' songs (What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul? is particularly effective), old time bluegrass such as Ash, and the more folk pop numbers, with mesmerising musicianship.
The album closes with Happy As We Both Can Be - Rory Butler and Katherine Stewart's vocals harmonising as a couple reflecting on being together and the passing stages of life, set to waltz time banjo and guitar - and at the end somehow there's a satisfaction and hope in this track that balances the corruption and lack of authenticity often found in the subjects of the rest.
This is vivid contemporary folk - aware of its political heritage all the way back through Woody Guthrie and beyond, bringing together disparate but still related musical forms in Bluegrass and Scottish folk, and never less than intelligent and stirring in its social commentary. If you don't like the politics it is still impossible to resist - serious themes, but always delivered with exalted music, life and humour; Join Forces is a tremendous modern folk album.
SOUTHERN TENANT FOLK UNION I Join Forces EP (Four songs from the album)