Defining Sam Lee is a very onerous task as he is much more than just a folk musician. Lee has studied fine art, worked as a forager and wilderness expert and been a part-time burlesque dancer. Sam’s first contact with traditional folk songs only began in his twenties when Lee apprenticed himself to the late Scottish Traveller Stanley Robertson, who taught Sam “what it really means to inhabit a song and how to let the music guide you”.
Lee’s musical accomplishments before releasing his debut LP, Ground of its Own, in 2012 (which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize) are many, including, being presented with the 2011 Arts Foundation Award (the first year folk music was recognised for the first time as an art form) and forming the London based, “The Nest Collective” in 2006 where people can enjoy folk, world and new music and sonorous experiences in unusual spaces. Sam now returns with his latest LP, Old Wow, produced by Bernard Butler (Suede, MacAlmont & Butler) and for the first time on a Sam Lee recording, the electric guitar features.
Old Wow opens with “The Garden of England (Seeds of Love)”, a quiescent song, yet still boasts of pounding drums, piano and strings, which, with the lyrics, echo a halcyon longing for the old natural world that leads to happiness. “The Garden of England (Seeds of Love)” naturally compliments the skillset of Lee, who with a Shruti box (an instrument used by Indian musicians to create drone effects) is not only able to attract nightingale birds; but gets them to sing along too.
“Lay This Body Down” opens with a Fleet Foxes style "Sun It Rises" introduction which then unexpectedly and unassumingly transforms into Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” inspired arrangements. The seriousness, suspense of the distorted piano keys, deep distorted bass and brass inject urgency and poignancy to the subject matter of burials, death and walking through graveyards. The fragility of human life is explored further in the following track “The Moon Shines Bright” (which features Elizabeth Fraser). Whilst “The Moon Shines Bright” is musically filled with melancholy as if it is the soundtrack to a funeral march; this song is rife with life lessons including “the life of a man comes with little plan” and “it flourishes like a flower… so cherish your every hour”.
“Soul Cake” changes the course of the musical direction of Old Wow completely. The six-minute-long track is genteel with a subtle swing sound with jazz piano riffs and distorted, vibrating bass lines. The motley of strings bares an indirect correlation to those on Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”; emphasising this songs’ subject matter about how “time brings all things to an end”. The distortion of sound is repeated on the other six-minute track, “Jasper Sea”, which is a background theme to pure and undisturbed piano playing throughout.
“Spencer the Rover” returns to the theme of the beauty of the natural world and how travellers can easily end their wanderings and find a place to settle: “contended they will be and be rambling no more”. There are many themes here, including, the fifth of November and the power of the tradition of storytelling to unite people “like bees in one hive”.
The themes of parting ways, travelling and going on pastures new (ten thousand miles) feature on “Turtle Dove”. Lee’s vocals are their most powerful and projected here. The collective strings, piano and pounding drums with raw, unsmoothed and acerbic bass add feelings of urgency, tension and suspense as if one is listening to a story with deft and unexpected plots, and unnervingly revealing themselves.
The penultimate track, “Worthy Wood” opens with soft guitars which develop with a mystical and spiritual backdrop thanks mainly to the djembe drums and digeridoo which are not found elsewhere on Old Wow. Whilst “Worthy Wood” is musically in many respects the antithesis of The Levellers “Elation”; the emotional and spiritual awakening induced within is similar and will last beyond, not just the length of this song, but beyond the duration of this LP.
Old Wow plays out with “Balnafanen”. In many respects “Balnafanen” has a cliché playout track feel to it as does Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” on Kid A. Nonetheless, the melancholy elatedness generated as well as fears about the fragility of life are not lost; rather they are curated together in a united front leaving the listener with multiple thoughts, hopes, fears, regrets as well as further questions simultaneously. One will want to immediately re-listen to Old Wow again to study, develop and provide clarity to ones newly generated thoughts.
Across Old Wow Sam Lee is able to draw in listeners to his music as he is able to draw in Nightingales to the sound of the Shruti box. Whilst the electric guitar is introduced and makes its presence felt; Lee does not lose the connection between the origins and history of these folk songs and how they should sound. No stadium rock or guitar solos feature. Bernard Butler’s production genius lies not in injecting the sounds he created as a producer for artists like Duffy, his musical influences as a solo artist, in Suede or in MacAlmont & Butler; Butler’s genius lies in allowing Sam Lee to draw everything he learned as an apprentice to Stanley Robertson and the experiences Sam creates with The Nest Collective.