We the Collective..
There’s always that extra bit of excitement at the prospect of a new Levellers album dropping through the letterbox – unfortunately for me the postie arrived when I wasn’t in over the bank holiday weekend, so impatient I had to resort to iTunes to have a listen before picking up my goodies this morning. Reading reactions online has been a bit like those irritating Marmite adverts on TV (for the record, I definitely fall into the hate camp for Marmite) – with fans seemingly either loving it or hating it.
Having not made it so far to the live tour – my postponed date in Milton Keynes has been rescheduled for when I’m at a wedding, sadly – so I’m going to have to peruse the fixtures for another suitable date to check it out. The new arrangements of familiar songs were a surprise to me, and I’d say a very pleasant surprise! Recorded in the famous Abbey Road under supervision from John Leckie, and some musical assistance from The wonderful Moulettes and Tobias May this is the familiar (mostly) rendered in a very different way.
I can kind of understand people’s cognitive dissonance – the Levellers music has lived with many of us for years, a comfort blanket replete with meaning both in the merit of their own lyrics and melodies or through life events they provided a soundtrack to (or in mosh pits they’ve been danced to in). I’ll be honest, I struggled when ‘wrestled with our’ became ‘whispered all our’ fears on the 1998 re-release of One Way. I still bristle a bit when they still sing it that way now (I wonder if they did on the Levelling the Land anniversary tours? I’ll have to check on the Live CD!).
One review on iTunes accused them of ‘reeling out the same old songs again’, whereas another accused them of being too different to what people might expect, demonstrating neatly in a sample of two disgruntled reviewers the tightrope the band walks with actual fans, let alone critics. I think they both kinda missed the point, but it’s true that if Levellers are pioneers of folk-punk this collection has forged a path into orchestral folk – luscious strings, percussion sometimes absent, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes minimalist punctuation-like placeholders.
The selection of songs is thoughtful – and with some new material thrown in too. Exodus starts with dramatic strings and Mark’s vocals cutting over passionately, of course the chorus gives the album its title – the first listen on tinny headphones didn’t do it justice compared to putting it through a fuller speaker. You can almost put yourself in the room where it was recorded as if live. It’s a testament to the original songwriting that it renders so brilliantly in a neo-classical style.
I’d never have guessed from the finger-picking intro that Liberty Song was up next – vocals then minimal piano join in, then some staccato percussion (probably the wrong term, all percussion is probably staccato, ha!) emphasises the chorus. England My Home has had its world turned upside down, with the refrain from the end of the normal recording at the beginning before probably the more jaunty of the tunes (as I type while it’s playing it’s made one of my cockatiels sing to it!) – the vocals are almost chanted rather than sang until the chorus where backing vocals harmonise it out. It ends with a delicate stringed classical instrumental.
Subvert is an interesting choice, covering Zounds and in truth the original isn’t amongst my favourite Levellers tracks, it’s really interesting to hear this different take on it though. Harsh strings kick in with thumping drums joining Simon’s quickfire vocals. Minimalist in some ways but so fulsome to listen to. Hope Street is reminiscent of the stripped down Busking on Hope Street b-side to the single (that was the first Levellers CD I bought!) – guitar and harmonica accompany Mark’s plaintive vocals – but then the drums, backing vocals and strings kick in to really fill it out.
Elation is a beautiful piece of songwriting – the original is spellbinding, Maelor Hughes’ cover on the Bostin’ Days CD is up there too – but well, I think we might’ve reached another notch, mournful strings lead into Boaksey’s didge before the familiar notes are picked out with Simon’s lonely vocals overlaid, female backing vocals interweaving melodically as the first chorus approaches – dancing around the music before a bass throb is added, now the voice calling out gently (although the lyric-change OCD kicks in – it was softly in the original!) is now female, it works well, as gentle percussion and strings build the layers into a soaring sung instrumental (sungstrumental?). It’s magical. I defy you to not want to skip back when it finishes to listen again.
Dance Before the Storm starts with understated strings and guitar – but then a bass line and percussion gives it a different feel, despite the familiar fiddle riff and harmonica. Simon’s vocals are more tuneful – which was almost spoken-word in the original – and differently paced. The chorus is more choral too – more measured in pace. The Shame has snuck into a few live shows for a while, Simon and an acoustic guitar – forceful and devastating lyrics charting the perils and the awful treatment refugees have been finding, accompanied simply by subtle strings. Stirring stuff.
Drug Bust McGee has an almost easy listening pace to it with a gentle repeating riff and percussion – although the lyrics are an autobiographical tale of undercover policing and the dishonesty therein that can and has ensued is anything but easy listening! As the song builds with more layers we have vocals from Laura Kidd (who you might know better as She Makes War) taking the role of one of those under investigation and ending up pregnant by the police officer.
One Way doesn’t sound like this often – some strings start it, then stop with percussion kicking in and the more familiar fiddle riff. The music is staccato over a more chanted version of the song, instruments and passion in vocals building to a crescendo only to be dropped back to a minimal chorus with just some plaintive strings accompanying. The percussion is back for the next verse, and then after the tease before we’re giving a full on chorus complete with drums and instrumentals. Mark, the bugger, still sings ‘whispered all our fears’, though!
I think this is a sublime record – even as a remedial box-banger in a cover band I understand that you can develop songs over time as you hopefully get better at your craft over time, so I can understand the compulsion to revisit old writing with a new lens to apply to it – but it wouldn’t really do to tinker and re-release, here we’ve got reimaginings, a new genre. In the sleeve notes Jon mentions that they liked playing in theatres but had problems with the venues and the fans compulsion to dance, and maybe this is the solution to that – because personally I’d want to sit and let this wash over me rather than get into the kind of sweaty mess I do at regular Levellers gigs.
If you bought the deluxe version you’re also treated to an extra four tracks on a bonus disc – three you’ll know, one new one. I won’t go through this in detail, although I will pick out Said and Done as it’s one of my favourite under-the-radar Levellers tracks, nestled in the oft overlooked Truth and Lies album – it’s piano driven and combined with Mark’s vocals sounds just lovely. I suppose it’s not that overlooked, Brad Dear lifts the lyric around falling in love with nature’s daughter. You’ll have to get it yourself to decide about Fifteen Years, Outside/Inside and All the Unknown though.
It’s a win from me. Take a bow gentlemen and ladies. I still don’t like Marmite, though. Now I’m off to check out those tour dates…