The spiky, angular traditional songs that made up Stick in the Wheel's first album From Here were stripped of any varnish and any trappings of nostalgia to become direct, upfront, yanked from the parlour into the street, and out of the past into the turbulence of the present. They were songs that had things to say and ears to listen, and the album won them the fRoots and Mojo Folk Album of the Year and four nominations in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Since then, Stick in the Wheel have toured with the likes of Dublin’s brilliant young band Lankum, released the fascinating From Here: English Folk Field Recordings, a project that featured raw, pared-back performances from the likes of Martin Carthy, Lisa Knapp, and Sam Lee. Now they have upped the ante of what the songs of the tradition have to say to the world today, with a brilliant second album, recorded in what sounds like emergency conditions over three weekends in a deserted warehouse and office complex in Basildon, where they set up and broke down their equipment after each session. Which sounds like a cross between art installation, punk insurrection and urban field recording.
The playing is vigorous but spare, and there’s a strong cast of electronic chiaroscuro
Follow Them True is about roots, about stripping away the layers of accumulated history and interpretation to reveal the raw humanity of the tradition afresh, newly pressed, dripping with history and contemporary resonances. The playing is vigorous but spare, and there’s a strong cast of electronic chiaroscuro as lead singer Nicola Kearey adapts that ubiquitous tool of the pop world – autotuning – and turns it up to 11 on select tracks to create some extraordinary vocal textures. There’s something brilliantly folkloric about using this stock-in-trade of the X Factor generation, putting a stick through its wheels, and coming out with the tortured, impassioned vocals Kearey delivers that sound at times like some kind of aural trepanning.
“It’s our history and our culture and we should be aware of it,” Kearey says of ancient English tunes like the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, one of the 13 tracks here. She also stands up for the history of working-class subversiveness that strays across the canon of folk song, the codes and metaphors that stick out of the verses like misfits, but remain there, essential to their power. With the album’s mixture of new and traditional material, Stick in the Wheel retains and reforms that raw power of folklore and myth allied to vocal drones, powerful choruses, and musical elements of trance, punk, post-rock and a gritty acoustic attack.
This is likely to be one of the folk albums of the year, and Stick’s rising reputation is very well served by Follow Them True. Let Nicola Kearey have the last word, then return to the music, to see how those words ring true: “Let’s focus on the English stuff because it is weird. It’s dark and surprising, it’s unashamedly odd and has a personality of its own. It’s uncomfortable, forces us to confront ourselves, unlike so much other music it’s not escapism.”