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Steeleye Span

Dodgy Bastards

Review by Rick Damigella

Folk rock legends Steeleye Span have been crafting their unique blend of ancient music-meets-modern instrumentation for the better part of five decades. Dodgy Bastards is the group's 23rd studio album, and for this listener, is one of their strongest efforts of the modern-Span era. The majority of the album is based on the "Child Ballads," an anthology of traditional balladry of England and Scotland, with Steeleye's own magic woven into the compositions. Most refreshingly, the album eschews the traditional guitar solo on many songs for a different string instrument, with Jessie May Smart expertly navigating the neck and catgut of her violin.

Alas, if you are unfamiliar with The Span, you might wish to educate yourself further. I recommend starting your listening as I did, with their compilation album Original Masters, preferably on vinyl.  

Dodgy Bastards tis a fyne listen and should be enjoyable to ye olde fan base as well as new ears.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2017  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Cruel Brother
Based on Child Ballad 11, ""Cruel Brother" is a lengthy opener at nearly eight minutes. It features interesting progressions throughout, book-ended by a chorus-like section which recalls some of their earlier works.
All Things Are Quite Silent
This is a mournful guitar and vocal ballad about press gangs, who in olden times would abduct men to round out the crews of sailing ships. Maddy Prior's voice is soft and beautiful against the stark story told.
Johnnie Armstrong
Based on Child Ballad 169, "Johnnie Armstrong" finds the group in storytelling mode about the Scottish folk-hero.
Boys Of Bedlam
This is a very different spin on the classic Steeleye sound. The main hook recalls the ending Deep Purple adds to live performances of their hit "Perfect Strangers." Mayhap even more interesting is the rap section. It is highly unusual for the genre but, oddly enough, works quite well. An extended instrumental section progresses the piece to the coda.
Brown Robin's Confession
Based on Child Ballad 57, Jessie May Smart handles lead vocals here. The core melody is reminiscent of a song called "Prometheus" by Nathaniel Johnstone, which I also highly recommend you give a listen to.
Two Sisters
Based on Child Ballad 10, the song is famous (or infamous) for being a "murder ballad," with nearly two dozen known variants on the story. It's an atypically modern sounding piece for the band with an excellent violin solo from Jessie May Smart.
Cromwell's Skull
Based on its composition and delivery, this could very well have been recorded during Steeleye Span's golden age in the 1970s. Another soaring violin solo from Smart rounds out the piece.
Dodgy Bastards
While the first two thirds of Dodgy Bastards have been pieces rooted in balladry and more mellow arrangements, the title track is an absolute rollicker from top to tail. The interplay of the instruments (especially the way the guitar and violin wrap around each other) helps propel this toe-tapper. Verily, this is one of the most enjoyable songs on the album, sounding all for the world like an electrified version of a jig you might see dancers at a local renaissance faire performing to.
Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary
This song continues the upbeat tempo set up by the previous, with Maddy Prior's angelic voice front and center.
The Gardener
A heavy and almost ominous guitar riff heralds the arrival of this song. It's nother great example of the juxtaposition of Prior's angelic voice, and violinist Jessie May Smart's beautiful string play, both set against the darker undertones.
Bad Bones
This is a tale of a roguish ne'er do well individual based around a central riff which again recalls an amplified sing-along at a ren faire. Another rap at the bridge brings to mind something one might hear at a present day musical theater performance, sounding for the world like an outtake from "Hamilton."
The Lofty Tall Ship / Shallow Brown
The album closer is another example of how well Steeleye Span manages to record new music in similar mode to its classic sound, without living in the past. Self-described "singist" Maddy Prior delivers an amazingly strong performance across the first half of the piece. The latter half of the number arrives six minutes in, with a series of solos, from fretless bass, to violin to a very bluesy guitar taking the song and album to its coda.
 
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