Who put the crown on the head of the clown?

I do bloody love 3 Daft Monkeys, there’s no denying it.  They’re playful yet poignant, irreverent but relevant, mischievous and mystical – they weave and fuse their modern folk sound with celtic and balkan type influences – they bring smiles, they bring tears.  It was a real honour to be sent a preview copy of their new album – The Year of the Clown.  I’m always touched to be asked to review something somebody has created, it’s a personal thing and I’m only too eager to make sure that I treat it with the respect it deserves.

The CD arrived whilst I was galavanting at Rockstock and Barrel – I excitedly put it in the car when going to take Ella back to Stevenage only to be greeted with the dreaded ‘disc error’ message – oh well, I’ll rip it when I get home, I thought.  And I did – but only nine of the twelve tracks copied successfully… modern technology is great though, a quick email and Tim kindly furnished me with digital copies of the remaining tracks which I’ve spent the last few days getting to know whilst commuting, doing chores and well, basically any time I’ve been listening to music.

Accompanying the disc is a press release – Year of the Clown is a deliberate reference to the frankly terrifying global political stage – it positions the album as being very personal, 3 Daft Monkeys exposing their bare bones and their souls.  It shows in the sound too – in typical style there are powerful observations masked by catchy melodies, mischievous rhyming devices and swirling soaring fiddle journeys.  It’s unmistakably 3 Daft Monkeys, but with a degree of themeatic reinvention we’ve seen in their last few albums – and going another step toward trying to capture their raw live energy on a recording.

The journey begins with title track Year of the Clown – a laughing and cheering crowd is bade welcome as guitar and ‘shush’ noises are joined by a sinister spiralling fiddle and ponderous percussion in a waltz rhythm (echoes of Days of the Dance)  It’s very evocative of being in some kind of dystopic carnival or circus – the vocals enquire as to who put the crown on the head of the clown, before the song kicks in proper.  Tribal beats and bass overlaid with guitar and fiddle along with crowd whooping lead into the verses – percussion-led with fiddle refrains.

The instrumental section a little under three minutes into the track almost ends up with middle-eastern sounding melodies that morph into almost Entry of the Gladiators further cementing the circus feel, throwing you back to the gentle waltz beat and strum with spiralling fiddle again, spoken words of tension, chaos and darkness – before kicking right back in again, with chaotic brass joining the melêe of instrumentation.  It’s a strong start – there’s so much going on here but it hangs unequivocably together – disturbing yet charming.

Delighted to be Invited is back on to more familiar 3DM territory – explosive percussion and fiddle begins a fast paced romp with both Tim and Athene’s vocals in play.  There’s trademark pace-changes in here, the instruments drop out as the vocals kick in and again there’s some brass in the mix.  Just when you think you’ve got the measure though we get to a middle-eight of sorts, heavy drum beats and haunting fiddle strain over ethereal vocals before the more familiar verse kicks in – sung just over clapped beats before it kicks in proper again for a tumuluous final chorus.

Drink with God is something we’ve heard roadtested live at Bearded Theory and Dogfest last year, of course it’s difficult to say whether the recorded song is reminiscent of those.  Guitar and percussion stings open with overlaid fiddle.  The vocals start unaccompanied with the instrumental stings, eventually ending up with backing percussion – it casts God as a drunk in a pub with an incredibly cynical outlook on the way the world has turned out (hard to disagree, having said that!).  The instrumental sections in the middle of the song are really danceable though!

Money starts with palm-muted guitar strums and vocals – it’s hard to argue with ‘Don’t let the money get in the way – life’s to short to live in that way’ – a rolled-tongue cry leads into the song kicking in proper, a soaring fiddle riff over a ponderous bass, guitar and drum pattern – almost reggaeish.  Instruments drop out for just clapped rhythms accompanying the vocals before the returning for the chorus.  It’s a pretty melody, repetitive and almost hypnotic until you’re thrown out the routine with a middle-eight which leads into an instrumental slowing the pace right down before building it up again – all led by some excellent fiddle work, quite looking forward to seeing the influence of this section of music on live crowds when it takes control of people’s bodies!

Whistles open up Look to the Stars in a lovely melodic introduction with gentle guitar work underneath – haunted vocals kick the song off, enhanced by strings  – it’s a minute and a half before percussion kicks in.  The lyrics are evocative of being cast adrift in the sea, the backing track cuts out completely on two minutes before the song kicks in more fully.  It’s a clever track – ponderous in pace but layered really cleverly – an initially bleak scenario is saved by a police boat, but it never loses that isolated and lost feeling.  Star-gazing in lieu of deriving satisfaction even on dry land?  Maybe!  I’m not going to attempt to derive too much meaning!

1,000 Years is immediately more cheerful and playful – fast-moving notes and drums pause occasionally – then fiddle kicks in for a sustained blast of continuous music.  Lyrically it’s a love song, idealistic and coy (unless it’s not reciprocated of course – then it could be a bit stalkerish!) – that said, as Tim’s vocals are backed with Athene’s I think it’s fair to assume that it is a mutual thing!  Brass instruments add some real oomph to a powerful rhythm provided by drums, bass and guitar – finishing up with the mischievous sounding stop-start melody from the beginning of the track.

Continuing a theme of sorts I Love You has a very ponderous start with drawn out lyrics accompanied by strains of fiddle, eventually kicking into a fast-paced and infectious fiddle-led instrumental backed with a meaty ska-like backing track.  Only for it all to drop out again for just vocals and fiddle again – and then back to the instrumental again before even the lonely fiddle drops out leaving just a bass riff and percussive stabs.  Later a chanted section is just over a drum beat, then we’re back on the instrumental, more vocal only sections and a finish with the full instrumental chorus.  A four minute musical roller-coaster.

The next track is deliciously bitchy – guitar strums accompany the vocals which kick in with ‘I’m sorry I no longer feed your ego, but it’s got such a huge appetite’ – I’m sure we all know someone like that!  Blessings then kicks in with almost a One Fine Day instrumental, lyrically it appears to be charting the demise of a relationship – not necessarily an intimate one.  Ultimately the other party is dismissed with the blessing of the narrator of the song (although I’m not convinced it’s meant entirely sincerely!) – it has one of my favourite instrumentals on the album though, it’s really rather immersive and expansive – leading eventually into a final chorus.

Blummin’ eck, I’ve written loads already haven’t I?  There’s still four tracks to go!  Animal has a frenetic start – ‘I’m an animal, and I love you’ is the lyrical opening gambit before it eventually leads into the full instrumental, this is a really very danceable song, with a rest-break for the middle-eight (not a massive break, admittedly!)  before catchy fiddle riff kicks back in, building inexorably to a climactic end kicking back into the repetitive-drill of the chorus, ending with some harmomised ‘la la’ing before coming to a close.  Almost hypnotic.

To Dream of Angels starts with guitar and then vocals which are almost replied to by semi-mournful semi-cheerful fiddle refrains.  It’s a swaying song rather than a dancing song – I like a good sway, to be fair!  Lyrically it’s a joyous affirmation of a loving couple – the middle section has empassioned singing over rhythmic instrumentals along with haunting backing vocals before the chorus kicks in again – I’m a sucker for a cleverly simplistic rhyme ‘free to be together once again’ is played with syllablically (is that a word) to rhyme beautifully. Clever.

Not in my Name is another we’ve heard road-tested before – guitar strums and vocals kick in before frenetic drumming then it all drops out for the lyrics proper kicking in, percussive stabs are introduced before a quick ska-type rhythm is introduced.  In 3DM style this is interrupted with moments of silence or stabs of sound.  Quite overtly political in theme – describing the uneasy relationship we have with our war-mongering leaders.  The second verse is a chilled out almost reggae interlude, before the pace kicks in again.  The instrumental toward the end introduces some more awesome fiddle work to lift the track.

And we finally wind our way to the end of the album with We are Revolution – which is a beautifully crafted song.  Gentle guitar where you can hear the fingers sliding up and down the strings to find different fret positions, both Tim and Athene harmonise for the singing over staggered guitar – with percussion gradually introduced with bass into a reggae beat with some clever finger-picking work to break the predictability.  It’s the lyrics I really gravitate to here though – particularly the assertion that ‘If we could see with the eyes of a child and love with the strength of a mother’ – well, it would certainly make the world a better place wouldn’t it?

A triumphant return – 3 Daft Monkeys have produced a collection of songs that take you on a full emotional and rhythmic journey, which isn’t that unusual.  The more personal and political themes are worked into unmistakable 3DMness but with development in musical styles – the circus evoked so strongly in the opening track it turns out is the ‘circus of life’ – and each track takes you through the myriad of themes and emotions that are integrally part and parcel of all of our lives.  It’s really cleverly done – I can’t wait to hear more of it live!  We can all feel a bit good about it too as it was a crowdfunded project – so hats off to my fellow fundees!

Year of the Clown is out later this month – and you can avail yourself of a copy either at a gig or via the 3 Daft Monkeys website.  I’ve pinched promo photos from the 3 Daft Monkeys website, but the other four are all courtesy of Ella at Snotography – taken at Something to Smile About 2016.

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Freeborn Al / 6th April 2017 / Gigs, Music, Other Bands, Photos
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