Sunday, 18 November 2012

Albums for Life: 95: Chris Wood: Handmade Life

I must admit that my introduction to English folk has been a gentle one. Scotland and Ireland had always provided an authentic Celtic edge that seemed to make their music resonate outside of chauvinist rhetoric. The likes of Christy Moore, Jackie Leven and latterly, Kris Drever, Lau and Karine Polwart, all seemed to bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern with language that rang true. When it came to English folk banging on about princes, frogs and throbbing breasts in Camalot I was invariably left cold. And then there were the 'proud' historians, singers in tank tops who postulated in thin reedy voices with their fingers in their ears, like social studies teachers training up prospective BNP intellectuals for an appearance on Question Time.
I've always loved the voices and songs of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny but my knowledge of more traditional English folk started with the gentle songs of Kate Rusby. This Yorkshire lass charmed me, without embarrassment, into the world of courting Lords and Ladies; here was someone proud of her heritage who understood the need for these songs to speak as historical documents; but also to endure as works of art. They spoke of ordinary people too, commoners with all of the recognizable human strengths and weaknesses; affected by the mundanities and injustices that blight any generation. Rusby guided me with her recommendations; I checked out Nic Jones's 'Peguin Eggs' and found it a lovely thing, was then introduced to the clan of the mighty Martin Carthy.

And yet there was always something about the tone of the voices; an earnest, affected nasal intonation which suggested that the world of our ancestors was a Vic free vicinity. Eventually I found a voice that bridged the hay nonny divide for me. Even though Chris Wood is rooted in the traditionalist fare of folk (he cites his biggest influence as 'Anon') his was an eye that observed both traditional and modern worlds and spoke about them in canny, heavenly yet devilishly conceived, understatements.  I was listening to 'The Imagined Village' record and heard Wood singing 'Scarborough Fair'. He invested the old chestnut with such delicate passion that it was re-invented as a modern love song. I sought out an anthology of his stuff; the excellent 'Albion', which includes a song/story 'One in a Million' and wept with Marcus as we listened to it together. Marcus is a bluff Yorkshireman and this was a song set in a fish and chip shop...
I then sought out his latest album. 'Handmade Life' is chock full of wide eyed wonder and intellectual curiosity, chock full of narratives; heartbreaking, historical; there's political comment, there's even a love song to asparagus! Sure, there's mention of Spitfires and allotments but the muse and musicianship is diddly dee free. These are tender tales, tethered by actuality. Wood carves his songs so delicately and presents them so gently that you are often startled by their candor. Witness 'Hollow Point', a deconstruction of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. 
I've read this dismissed as "music for soppy old gits in semi-retirement" and there is something comforting about the warmth of the delivery, but there's no codgy, cosy contentment here; this is modern music guided by ancient wisdom; sung in a warm and wondrous, all enveloping tenor, that would put a shiver up the stiffest of backs and warm the cockles of the most frigid modernist.
The solo performances below give the impression of a talented folk singer. 
You need to hear the album's haunting ambience to gauge the true quality of the man's vision; he has a keen ear; a keener eye.
All life is here in 'Handmade Life'. 


  1. I am listening to this and finding phrasing at times that brings to mind Ewan MacColl, whose Song of a Road is my no. 95. Enjoying this by the way!

  2. Funny what leads you to folk; I discovered Ewan through his daughter Kirsty who I discovered (beyond her 45s) through her brother Neil who I found playing guitar for The Bible...