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Thirty Pounds of Bone & Philip Reeder
Still Every Year They Went Tom Bolton , January 15th, 2020 10:13

Recorded on a fishing trawler, with all the attendant sounds of the sea, Thirty Pounds of Bone and Philip Reeder's mournful shanties evoke the passing of a whole way of life, finds Tom Bolton

Still Every Year They Went is an album of starkly arranged folk songs about the sea: shanties, laments, fishing songs. But that really isn’t the half of it. In 2015 two musicians and lecturers, Johny Lamb (who records as Thirty Pounds of Bone) and Philip Reeder took a trip out of Falmouth on a trawler called the Girl Mary. They brought instruments and recording gear along with them, determined to conduct an apparently absurd experiment in playing folk music on board a working boat. What the skipper and his mate felt about this is not revealed, but judging by the finished songs they were probably too busy to worry. The songs are played to the accompaniment of all kinds of ambient, background noise, evidence of a fishing boat engaged in a hard day’s work. It is a live test of whether traditional songs have anything to do with real life anymore, as well as being, in the words of the musicians, an “inherently risible endeavour”.

The duo’s on the face of it somewhat bizarre approach quickly proves vivid, haunting and engrossing. The songs are performed by Lamb employing simple arrangements with mostly low, finger-picked guitar accompanying his high, mournful voice. Everything else is provided by Reeder’s carefully placed microphones. The sounds of the ocean and the gulls are heard throughout, but so are less expected noises: the creaking of the hull, a helicopter (apparently belonging to the coastguard), something that could be a mechanical winch. These grindings, grunts and groans make both the boat and the album seem very much alive. Songs such as ‘Shoals of Herring’ are given depth by the unearthly rasp and squeal of the trawler’s superstructure. ‘My Bonny Lad’, a grim song about a drowned lover, responds well to the layer of mystery added by cunningly taped echoes of the deep.

The album is a mournful record, and Lamb and Reeder present its eight songs as paeans to a dead or dying way of life. While trawlers still sail from Cornish ports, the way of life that inspired these songs has changed fundamentally. The eight songs on the album are dark choices, even by folk standards, with tracks such as ‘The Whaleman’s Lament’ leaving little room for cheer. Lamb’s arrangements are both bleak and beautiful. The drinking song jollity of the shanty tradition is stripped out, leaving these tunes as what they are: social documents of a hard, thankless, lethal living. The shruti box drone on ‘The Halfway Song’, with stand-out, spookily layered vocals, seems to be piping out an era and the people who made it.

Still Every Year They Went is an arresting record, and the sound the duo have created is both unusual and fascinating. This is a recording that reconsiders and develops the long tradition of folk songs about the sea by making familiar songs strange, an essential process for any music.