Saturday, 28 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Show of Hands - Battlefield Dance Floor : Proper Records

Rules of engagement are absent in music. Show of Hands have been making music as an entity for thirty years and have never sought a low profile, even to those who dip into the folk world on an ad hoc basis. Yet despite catching them occasionally at festivals as well as a Steve Knightley solo appearance, opportunity to allocate some listening time to their music has never materialised. Over the last half a dozen years, investment of time in folk circles has tended to focus around smaller upcoming acts, with a particular lure of the female voice and the sensibility it often pervades. It has generally been a trait to leave words about the established figures in folk music to others, but like a lot of things in life, maybe it was time for a change. 

Thus a temptation to engage with the latest Show of Hands album was accepted as a challenge. While being under no illusion that more informed inches will dissect and surface elsewhere, maybe fresh ears can bring something to the party. 

Like a lot of folk albums, there is a barrage of background to the songs, often detailed in extensive accompanying notes or inset information. The major news item for BATTLEFIELD DANCE FLOOR is the expansion for Show of Hands from a core three-piece outfit to a quartet with the enlisting of percussionist Cormac Byrne. Co-founder Steve Knightley still provides the majority of the vocals alongside being the key songwriter. Long time band partner Phil Beer is indicated as the arrangement driving force and Miranda Sykes adds a touch of vocal diversity to her bassist duties, as featured many times before. 

To fill in some further details, the album consists of thirteen tracks, mixing mainly originals with a handful of covers. While some folk albums veer very much in a traditional direction, this one has a contemporary sheen without losing sight of the storytelling theme that features strongly in this genre. 

A first serious dip into listening to Show of Hands revealed a hugely enjoyable record putting the audience experience at the heart of the record. An accessible nature has likely played a large part in the band's popularity over the years. There is little hesitancy in recommending the record to listeners not seeing folk as their natural home. This hasn't watered down the approach Knightley, Beer, Sykes and Byrne have adopted to present their album.

Interestingly, the first track that caught my eye when perusing the list was a cover of Kirsty Merryn’s ‘Forfarshire’. Knightley did have previous with this song via duetting with Kirsty on her SHE & I album, a record that got a very favourable review here. In line with the original, Miranda Sykes gives a feminine tint to the vocal duet and it settles in as one of many fine tracks.

My personal favourite is the excellent ‘You’ll Get By’. A new song spearheading the original Knightley solo writes, and creating a real air of positivity.

While the covers as a whole don’t overshadow the new material they do offer certain narrative. A superb version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ is further evidence that the work of the late Canadian songwriting genius is often best presented to us non-artistic mortals  through the arrangement of others. 

Interest in what Show of Hands offer doesn’t wane from the stomping frivolity of the title track in the opening stages to the climactic ‘No Secrets’ wrapping things up as we approach fifty minute territory. Both the latter and ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’ join the aforementioned stand out number as prime examples of Knightley’s incisive songwriting. For an extra slice of diversity, ‘Swift and Bold (Celer et Audax)’ gets a drum rolling military makeover courtesy of the 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment. We also hear more Miranda Sykes on ‘Make the Right Noises’, which is no bad thing. 

There are certainly no rules of engagement to when you connect with artists. Ears may have been elsewhere while Show of Hands were entertaining and stimulating vast swathes of the folk fraternity, but times change. Fate created a zone for them to reach me on a more concentrated level in 2019 and proof of the success is in the writing. BATTLEFIELD DANCE FLOOR was released on September 27th for the wide world to enjoy. It may be your moment in time as well. 

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