Unpopular advent 2021 – day 13

David Lance Callahan – ‘She Passes Through The Night’ from English Primitive I

If in ‘Revolt Against an Age Of Plenty’ Alan Brown has made a record that observes and comments eloquently on contemporary society and its ills, all wrapped up in a super Popoid groove, then David Lance Callahan (of Wolfhounds and Moonshake infamy) plays a similar role whilst inhabiting a landscape of traditional folk music given a healthy twist of exotic raga weirdness and psychedelic extravagance.

‘English Primitive I’ opens traditionally enough with the terrific ‘Born Of The Welfare State Was I’ in which Callahan and Katherine Mountain Whitaker (formerly of Welsh punk-poppers Evans The Death) recount their good fortune at having lived through a period in the UK’s history when Governments saw their role as one of supporting and enriching the lives of all rather than protecting and expanding the wealth of a privileged minority. It reads as a hymn to tragedy, as a sweetly bitter plea for better times to come again. Don’t think anyone is holding out much hope, mind…

Elsewhere, the haunting ‘One Rainy September’ ploughs a similar folk path with its narrative of interwoven lives as Callahan and Whitaker again trade lines, this time as a father and daughter failing miserably to connect in any meaningful way. There are no winners here; both sides tragically caught in the eternal spiral of cause and effect. The song is eight and a half minutes of melancholic sorrow where the black hole of failed communication and fear of connection pulls the characters, and us, into a void of pain where love has curdled to despair. It’s like Fairport singing about John “Babbacombe” Lee in a spectral midnight mist. Bleak, brutal, yet hauntingly beautiful.

The twisted traditional folk flavour of the record warps further into ravaged peculiarity on tracks like ‘Goatman’ and the frankly terrifyingly addictive ‘Foxboy’. These magnificent songs are the animal-masked devotees of ‘The Wicker Man’ dancing wildly beneath timeless midsummer skies with the music sThe twisted traditional folk flavour of the record warps further into ravaged peculiarity on tracks like ‘Goatman’ and the frankly terrifyingly addictive ‘Foxboy’. These magnificent songs are the animal-masked devotees of ‘The Wicker Man’ dancing wildly beneath timeless midsummer skies with the music swirling around us in dense oscillating clouds of mesmerising psychedelic pattern. Everything hovers on the edge between East and West, between control and abandon, between darkness and light, the here and the other. It all reaches a kind of zenith on the seven minute blissed-out odyssey of ‘She Passes Through The Night’, a number that some might already be familiar with from it’s inclusion as a bonus track on WIAIWYA’s terrific ‘Seven at 77’ conceptual project back in 2018. It is a number where Alison Cotton’s viola lends a shivering drone that lurks behind guitar notes bent into circular repetitions of regret and imminent release, her vocals in turn lending a delectable mist of texture beyond Callahan’s semi-spoken delivery. The result is like a pagan choral communion with nature. It really is jaw-droppingly brilliant.

‘She Passes Through The Night’ then would be an undoubted highlight on any record, yet the fact that it merely nudges its nose in front of any of the other six songs surrounding it says much about just how fine an album ‘English Primitive I’ is. Deeply-rooted in a spectrum of folk traditions and drawing nourishment from a myriad of disparate wells, all of its fruits are spiked with a surreal magic. As far from blinkered, myopic English Exceptionalism and antiseptically curated museum pieces of ‘multiculturalism’ as you dare to imagine, ‘English Primitive I’ is a true sound of England’s dizzyingly rich, inter-connected social history: Messy, bleak, uplifting and uniquely, magically strange. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

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