Shovel Dance Collective - The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore Music Album Reviews

Shovel Dance Collective - The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore Music Album Reviews
Laying bare the strangeness of their repertoire while connecting centuries-old songs to modern struggles, the London collective approaches folk song as a living tradition, not a museum piece.

“The Grey Cock,” an English folk ballad whose origin lies sometime in the 17th century or earlier, concerns a pair of lovers who reunite late one night after a long time apart. When a crowing rooster interrupts their rendezvous, the woman sends her lover away, thinking morning has come. By the time she realizes that the bird has marked the day too early, and there is still an hour of night’s cover remaining, it’s too late: He’s already gone. There is some debate among scholars over whether the young man—sometimes called Johnny, others Willie—was still in possession of his mortal soul when he showed up at his girlfriend’s door. In a transcription of the ballad’s text collected in the 19th century, the reason for his predawn departure is left unspoken. But in one of the earliest known audio recordings, from the early 1950s, the singer says it outright: “O Mary dear, the cold clay has changed me/I am but the ghost of your Willie O.”

In one interpretation, the explicitly supernatural character of “The Grey Cock” is a comparatively recent addition, imported from an unrelated Irish ballad; in another, it is a remnant of the song’s original form, scrubbed from the official record to avoid the appearance of superstition and reintroduced via oral tradition sometime later. Shovel Dance Collective, on their remarkable new album The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore, go with the ghost story. Nick Granata, one of multiple vocalists in the London ensemble, delivers “The Grey Cock” with controlled vibrato, lingering on certain syllables and letting others rush by, sounding at times as if he’s seen a spirit himself. There are no instruments behind him; only the sound of softly rushing water. As for whether this is some exalted true and original version of “The Grey Cock” or a newer amalgamation, I suspect that Shovel Dance Collective don’t particularly care. For them, folk song is a living tradition, not a museum piece. 

Some of Shovel Dance Collective’s nine members grew up playing folk music, and others started as indie rock or experimental musicians and came to it later. They’re part of a loose-knit London scene whose participants have a similarly varied relationship to strict tradition: bands like caroline, whose post-rock instrumentals draw upon English folk as one of many influences, and the Broadside Hacks, who perform centuries-old songs in communal and improvisatory new arrangements. Compared to those two, Shovel Dance Collective are spartan and rigorous in their approach. There is not so much as an acoustic guitar in the credits of The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore, which instead favors instruments that conjure a deeper and stranger antiquity: hammered dulcimer, bowed cittern, mountain banjo, pump organ. And though Shovel Dance Collective’s full ensemble playing is lushly beautiful, they mostly withhold it, focusing on the quiet intensity of two or three voices interacting at a time. 

The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore contains four roughly 15-minute pieces, each a medley of folk songs—drawn from the histories of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Guyana—interspersed with field recordings of lapping riverbanks and bustling dockyards. Where a previous generation of young Britons sought to revitalize folk music by fusing it with the cutting-edge sounds of their era—Fairport Convention with rangy rock’n’roll, Pentangle with candlelit modal jazz—Shovel Dance Collective emphasize the essential strangeness of the music not by gussying it up but by laying it bare. Though the album’s collage-like presentation is resolutely contemporary, its component pieces are largely faithful to the source material. The sternly declarative vocal delivery of Mataio Austin Dean—one of the collective’s two most prominent singing voices, along with the more dramatically expressive Granata—brings to mind some grizzled old sailor or fisherman entertaining his fellow laborers over a pint after a long day. There are glimpses of the uncanny at the edges, like the instrumental “Waves on the Shore,” whose bowed string lines stretch and flicker as if refracted through a hall of mirrors. The cumulative effect is like that of the films of Robert Eggers, whose thoroughly researched and densely packed period details serve to render both the crushing grind of our ancestors’ daily lives and the figments and phantoms that may have haunted their imaginations. 

In interviews, and in an essay that accompanies The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore, Shovel Dance Collective’s members argue persuasively for the present-day power of traditional song: as a vessel for the voices of the racially and sexually marginalized, a corrective for historical narratives that serve the rich and powerful, a tool for solidarity among the working class, and a means of communion with the dead. At concerts, they distribute pamphlets of lyrics and historical information, with the intent of bringing audiences closer to their own impassioned understanding of the material. They operate non-hierarchically, with no fixed leader. Even the aforementioned essay they penned together as a collective. 

This context is admirable, and knowledge of the history can certainly heighten the experience of the music. Such is the case of the album-closing “Ova Canje Water,” a traditional Guyanese song delivered from the perspective of a formerly enslaved person who is urging his comrades to join him in escape and freedom. Dean, whose mother hails from the Caribbean nation and former British colony, explained the song’s significance in an interview with The Quietus: “Actual stories of people liberating themselves from that are quite rare, and you need to cling onto those. They should be a part of our history that we talk about and understand, because that is how we learn to liberate ourselves.”

But you needn’t be a scholarly folklorist to appreciate The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore. The music speaks for itself, if you let it. Hammered dulcimer curlicues, entwined singing voices, trombone echoing across the gentle roar of the Thames—with close attention, all of it has the capacity to make your hair stand on end, no pamphlets required. 

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Shovel Dance Collective - The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore Music Album Reviews Shovel Dance Collective - The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on January 17, 2023 Rating: 5


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