Merry Hell : Anthems to the Wind26.11.2018 : Mondo Tunes (dist.)
"So I will say freedom's where your family is,
and a few friends,
and if you are lucky enough to have them,
then let'em know,
that you're satisfied"
Satisfied, Tansads/Merry Hell
In his ambitious and much lauded recent book, The Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier argues emphatically for a return to post-war communitarian social values to heal the fractured, angry dystopia Britain is becoming. The book maps out in prose what Merry Hell and the band's previous incarnation, The Tansads, have spelt out in wholehearted lyrics for thirty years. There's little frank party politics in this new album, or in any other either band produced, but there's a distilled human empathy and warmth caught in the songs the whole country should vote for.
Merry Hell have been playing in festivals and folk clubs since they formed after The Tansads' 2010 reunion concerts. The new band shares with the Kettle brothers' previous musical collaboration an enviable verve, songwriting skill and a rare ability to connect with an audience.
The Tansads always had a folk side, but it was often lost in the sheer power and energy they presented on a stage. Merry Hell's revitalising roots reboot, coupled with the new cohorts they have drafted in to form an eight strong collective, has led to nearly a decade of exceptional albums and gigs, rightly accompanied by an ever increasing momentum of awards and press recognition.
Merry Hell's four studio albums released since 2010 are certainly great, but in spirit they are a live band. Honed by hundreds of gigs, the music makes most sense on a stage, and they are at their most authentic in front of an audience. This new album is the next best thing to a concert - recorded live (mostly at Bunbury Church Hall) and acoustic, it captures the band's uncommon vitality. There is a quieter tone than some of their live sets - the band tour both as the full eight piece folk extravaganza and a slimmed down six piece for more intimate venues; Anthems to the Wind represents the latter format, the songs re-arranged and played with a subtler joie de vivre than by the whole octet.
For the shift in feel alone, to a more grounded setting of familiar compositions, it is worth the price of the CD, but as the new album ranges across the band's career (and dips into its pre-history) to produce an acoustic greatest hits, almost every song is also given extra life and depth from its first recording by Neil McCartney's fiddle; a recent and vital addition to the weave of Merry Hell's enchantment.
End to end Anthems to the Wind plays like a typically engaging Merry Hell live show, opening with a stripped-back but still rolling Drunken Serenade. A mournful No Place Like Tomorrow, the pro-diversity stomp of Loving the skin you're in, the moving simplicity of Lean on me, Love and Virginia Kettle's unlikely love story, The Butcher & the Vegan, then offer the highlights of a very strong set. Cast about and there are plenty of moments that suggest you could readily add to this list - starting with The War Between Ourselves, where the lead-out duelling vocals reflect the lyric's theme of endless domestic strife and re-emphasise the song's live power.
The album finishes with Satisfied, an early Tansads B-Side that was sometimes given an a cappella stage reading. Here it is rejuvenated by McCartney's fiddle part and Virginia's sympathetic interplay with Andrew's lead vocal. It is a serene but triumphant close - underlining that Merry Hell's music is folk deeply rooted in the cobbly backyards where The Tansads metaphorically first sparked their clogs. The whole record is a masterstroke; laid-barer there is still an undeniable, irresistible pop edge to the band's folksongs, even the ballads - you can also see more clearly that they all come from, and speak to, the common human heart.
MERRY HELL I Loving the skin you're in