Technically this is the first, second and third album by this group, but that’s a riddle you can figure out for yourself. The Lankum strategy for curating a songbook has thus far been impeccable, and 2014’s COLD OLD FIRE rejuvenated old ideas (and arguably an entire genre) on what was very much an album of “Dublin” songs. The subsequent deal with Rough Trade makes a lot of sense and puts the group in an assertive position. Rather than languishing on some small specialist label that, in the time-honoured tradition of the genre, would inevitably pillage them, they now have the high visibility they need to escape ghettoisation.
And with inevitable popularity comes the guarded hope that they remain an individual entity rather than the spearhead for an ill conceived folky bandwagon… the last thing this music needs is poorly informed coat-tail riding twits crooning about rusted sleans, borrowed ladders, horny transients sleeping in the barn or some old crone whose 13 kids died of the consumption. That’s tourist fodder, not folk music. Luckily, Lankum have toiled for their pedigree, and their recorded output to date more than earns its pride of place alongside BOIL THE BREAKFAST EARLY, A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF and THE WELL BELOW THE VALLEY.
As expected, BENEATH THE EARTH AND SKY lives up to whatever hype it generated – from the bleak tone of the music to the daunting cover art by Glyn Smith, it delivers effortlessly.
The album eases in with a smoldering WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN WE HAVE NO MONEY. A guttural drone only the Uilleann pipes can muster serves as the bedrock for of this beguiling Irish Traveller song. Peader Kearney’s SEARGENT WILLIAM BAILEY, a song lambasting British army recruitment efforts, was the promo single prior to the album’s release. This has been in the Lankum repertoire for some time as evidenced by a fine performance at the foot of Sidmouth’s red cliffs during Folk Week 2015, and emphatically demonstrates the group dynamic.
PEAT BOG SOLDIERS (originally Die Moorsoldaten) was a 1933 concentration camp freedom song that spread its wings far and wide. Renditions by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Luke Kelly (amongst others) have made it a civil rights/ anti-fascist standard. The Lankum arrangement is as it should be – strong vocal harmonies and without instrumentation. Where any other group might have made THE TOWNIE POLKA a tune where the fiddle leads, here it is essentially the through-line and the overall drone is dominant. This is the first of several musical ideas that push the psychedelic and progressive potential of this group.
Curiously, the three self-penned tunes are clumped together in the middle of the album. BAD LUCK TO THE ROLLING WATER attests Lankum’s compositional chops when set alongside works curated elsewhere. DÉANTA IN ÉIREANN is more ambitious in what it is trying to accomplish as a modern emigration ballad, but the results are mixed. Technically, the set-up is there, but at 8:15 minutes long, it misfires under the weight of its own solemnity. Without a metaphorical device, the despondent zeal is a little too “ardteistiméireacht” for my tastes… (Could this simply be PTSD after all these years?).
The third of the original tracks, THE GRANITE GAZE serves not only as the keystone to the album, but its jewel. Harsh intimations boil under the same dispirited sorrow that made COLD OLD FIRE the standout track from the previous album. It’s a beautiful but depressing indictment of our hick puppet-masters. There’s a wonderful promo video for this kicking about… I would imagine it’s stylistic coincidence but it reminds me of the sort of “mála” stop animation on dark ages RTE children’s programming that had me fleeing from the veneer TV… but this is fetid flashback horrors rather than commentary on the quality of the video, and the stop motion promo is both serene and disturbing for this very reason.
After the emotive turbulence previous track, THE TURKISH REVEILLE is a considered un-wind and a reconstruction of into a track I was only previously familiar with via Loudon Wainright III’s rendition. The Lankum treatment is low key, droning and wistful, commanding every second of its (almost) 12 minute running time. With considered elegance, the album ends in the timeworn tradition of love and murder. WILLOW GARDEN is guided by fiddle and vocals and wraps up the journey with the sentiment that there’s no happy ending here. The final vocal line gives the album its title.
With a new identity and life at a new label, it’s possible that there’s a bit of reserve being exercised, but it would be a little unfair to suggest this in an accusatory manner. Although the album contains plenty of sonic experimentation, there are no psychedelic wig-outs, kraut-y kinetics or other major leftfield strides that these experiments hint at. It’s possibly not even where the group wants to go.
As with the previous album, all collected music is treated with intuitive creativity and original material is judiciously placed. It will be interesting to see how these two elements balance out with each other going forward, but ultimately, it’s the contemporising of the genre rather than the archiving of it that sets the Lankum formula on the right track. In simple terms, BENEATH THE EARTH AND SKY succeeds by tapping into a rich heritage without resorting to being the work of a heritage act.