Sam Lee – The Fade in Time

(The previous album was better, but he still got it. The video I picked features Freda Black, who sings this traditional British Romany song, followed by Sam Lee’s version. Jasmine)

Sam Lee’s American debut The Fade in Time presents an artistic
wanderer with a deep reverence for the British folk tradition, an ear
tuned to the broader world’s rhythms, and a restless heart.  A
journeyman whose varied endeavors range from wilderness survivalism to
burlesque dancing, it is fitting that his chance encounter with renowned
Scottish Traveller singer Stanley Robertson set him upon his musical
career. Robertson’s tutelage led Lee to understand the need for a new
generation of song collectors to keep the old songs alive and make them
vital in a new millennium. 
The British folk ballad tradition is an endless store of inspiration and variation. Like the stories of The Old Testament,
they collectively contain the beauty, tragedy, faith, and folly of
humankind, and like that collection’s influence upon the literature of
the centuries that followed, so have these old songs guided the
development of the American and British popular songbooks. Lee’s
interpretations of these songs is both a distillation of all that has
come before and an adventurous beckoning to follow him into an uncharted
future. 
Lee brings a scholar’s care to annotating his songs’ origins in his
liner notes, crediting his teachers and sprinkling soundbites of the
past songkeepers throughout the album. We hear Charlotte Higgins sharing
an “old old song” with collector Hamish Henderson from 1956 in the
intro to “Lord Gregory” while “Bonny Bunch of Roses” opens with a sample
of a Serbian singer from a 1952 Smithsonian Folkways recording. As many
of the versions of the songs Lee sings have their origins in Traveller
and Romany Gypsy cultures, they offer creative and surprising variants
upon their formally known sources. “Over Yonders Hill” offers a
variation of “The Bold Young Farmer” with its lament of, “I wish my baby
was born and sits smiling on his own daddy’s knee.” And the ancient and
familiar “The Cuckoo” appears within the refrains of “Moss House”.
Lee’s rich baritone on these songs shows the depth of his learning from
Robertson and from others such as Martin Carthy and Ewan MacColl.
It is in Lee’s musical arrangements under the guidance of producers
Arthur Jeffes (Penguin Café) and Jamie Orchard-Lisle that this album
takes off into uncharted territories, suggesting a wide mix of
influences and inspirations. One hears the psychedelic-tinged influence
of the first British folk revival artists like Fairport Convention and,
especially, their jazz-influenced contemporaries Pentangle. There are
ample neo-traditionalist flourishes, such as dominated Celtic music of
the 1970s like the Bothy Band and Silly Wizard, and even a (thankfully
small) whiff of the airiness that defined the genre as it crossed into
mass appeal during the 1980s. But the album’s sonics are dominated by an
adventurous worldliness and sometimes cacophonic layering of surprising
sounds and instruments. Hints of Bollywood and arabesque styles merge
with more percussive modern classical or post-rock elements. At times,
the instrumentalists—particularly Steve Chadwick on horns, Jonah Brady
on koto and ukelele, Flora Curzon on Violin, Francesca Ter-Berg on
cello, and Josh Green on percussion—build into a trance-like backing
that evokes the neo-psychedelic folk of Erland and Carnival. Their
playing is organically connected even when working in dissonant
counterpoint.
This album, which follows upon Lee’s 2012 Mercury Prize-nominated release Ground of Its Own,
rewards repeat listening. It’s an album that, even in its quiet
moments, refuses relegation to the background. In short, it serves to
announce the arrival of a great talent who promises to find new ways to
keep us singing the old songs well into another century.

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