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Friday, 11 January 2013

Southern Tenant Folk Union goes a bit Dexter

Watching the Southern Tenant Folk Union launch their fifth album on the Green Note's tiny stage on Thursday brought to mind a world record attempt to fit the most people into a phone booth. Every time I thought I'd finished counting them, another head - or a banjo - would would pop into view from the back so its owner could take their turn at the single microphone.

It could have been a piece of physical theatre: guitar necks were foisted in the air, the better for the sound to reach the mike, vocalists moved nearer or farther away depending on how loud they needed to be and there looked to be an unwavering awareness of where everyone else was, so they could all move around each other. The lack of space made them a single organism and I didn't see anyone bump into anyone else.

They've also got a look. They had three beardy young men wearing suits that made them look like someone's ancestors in the Green Note's sepia light. Proper old-timey. I kept expecting them to break into Man of Constant Sorrow.

They didn't, though, partly because they write all their own material.

The new album, Hello Cold Goodbye Sun, is surprisingly contemporary in its preoccupations. After being described as "sawdust kickers" by an approving Guardian, they've applied their bluegrassy folk sound to a collection of songs described as "modern horror", as if True Blood, Twilight and Dexter had collided with DeadwoodDeliverance and Lars Von Triers' recent film about the end of the world, Melancholy, in such a way that the only thing left to do was sing about it. Sawdust, after all, is often used to soak up blood.

They began with a song preoccupied, according to the band's remaining founder member Pat McGarvey, by the imagery of JG Ballard's Crash, a novel which eroticises car accidents in a way that - as a former nurse - I always thought was odd. I mean, when you're recovering from traumatic injuries the pain will usually kill eroticism and if it doesn't then the opiates will. But hey... it's fiction. More importantly, the song worked.

Most hilarious intro of the evening went to Jed Milroy, owner of an amazing head of curly hair that he likes to shake about, for his explanation about how he came to write a macabre piece about a real Scottish kayacking trip that ended badly. "They all do," chimed in an audience member to much hilarity. And so we were treated to the image of a one-handed man gaffer-taping a paddle to his arm before finding a weird, Deliverance-y family (Duelling Banjos works well with this on several levels) on a causeway, refusing to admit that the tide was lapping their ankles or even that Milroy was there.

I don't know this band very well and stupidly managed to leave without an album. But they were gripping and there were tunes they played that I urgently need to hear again. OK, so the ambitious vocal harmonies were sometimes a little wonky. But I guess that's partly a function of working with new material.

In their greatest hits at the end - after they'd played the new album from end to end - they included a setting of Yeats's powerfully unusual poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I was struck by it because I know The Waterboys' version from their recent and rather wonderful album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

The poem is one of the greats. And Southern Tenant Folk Union really aren't bad either.

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