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Stick In The Wheel
Tonebeds for Poetry Jared Dix , October 7th, 2021 09:54

Glitches and electronic soundscapes provide a new ground for folk melodies for this London duo

Stick In The Wheel are a London band for whom folk music is not trapped in an imagined rural past, distant and frozen, but a shared living tradition. They grab hold with both hands, dragging it through the streets of the twenty-first century city with no fear they might somehow break it. After all, it's a sturdy and adaptable thing. Over time folk erases authorship by reworking lines, adding and subtracting verses, changing the musical settings and structures of songs. On Tonebeds for Poetry, Stick In The Wheel push this process harder and further than they have before.

This is the third of their mixtapes, loose collections of experiments and collaborations interspersing and informing their albums proper. Made during lockdown this one mostly finds core duo Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter pursuing electronics and abstraction, resulting in the most stretched but cohesive of the three. The previous mixtape (Against The Loathsome Beyond) fed strongly into the second half of last album Hold Fast and the lead track here ‘The Cuckoo’ picks up where it left off, Kearey singing softly over clear wintry electronics. This is an approach they’ve had success with but there are other possibilities to explore.

The first tune ‘Long The Day’ flips the approach with auto-tuned vocals and what sounds to be a fairly trad backing, although I feel like even here sections of it are sampled and looped. When they first used auto-tune, on ‘Follow Them True’ a few years back, it seemed a perverse folly, a flash of their prickly defiance. The hyper shiny glitch of auto-tune pushed in on itself is the most distinctive new sound of the twenty-first century so far. Divisive and much reviled, it thrives in the unashamedly artificial world of pop and R&B, what was it doing on an austere folk record? They’ve continued to use it sparingly and it has slowly emerged as a gentle but firm provocation from the heart of what makes them so special.

Part of what Stick In The Wheel are about is attempting to reclaim folk as a space for working class urban voices. Most likely such voices are not learning to play the fiddle or squeezebox anymore but using DAW apps on their phone to make music. Tonebeds for Poetry tries to forge or illuminate that link by blending old words and new sounds. ‘Blind Beggar’ is perhaps the clearest illustration, a London legend they recorded in fairly straight fashion on Follow Them True now recast as smooth R&B, Kearey’s auto-tuned vocal floating on soft electronic minimalism and ticking beats.

Such ideas are fraught with car crash potential of course but they manage to pull it off because their intention is more than the pursuit of novelty. Another direct combination uses the magic of midi to transport ‘The Devil’s Nag’ from seventeenth century dance tune to fidgeting electro. Again, it works but it feels like something of an entertaining dead end, the experiments here offering food for thought rather than the full emotional punch of their best work. The more promising approaches are less clearly defined, the results harder to parse. While the title Tonebeds For Poetry describes about half of the material, there’s also a good amount of pure sonic texture, short pieces of abstract drone and smudged field recordings that flow into one another drawing you towards the penultimate ‘Tottenham Hale Monolith’. A deep ominous pulse that rises to a piercing tone, it’s like something from a sci-fi soundtrack.

As you’ve absorbed the electro-folk signal and arrived at the foot of the monolith, there’s one final surprise. ‘Wierds Broke It’ takes an abrupt turn towards hefty sludge riffs and crashing drums as if Nicola were fronting Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs or something. She coldly intones a world of endless strife amid the raging sonic storm, “Days of struggle, troublesome times, grim sorrow, it is known.” There’s even room for a little more auto-tune on the coda resulting in a singular pile up of elements. It’s a lot of fun and, while I can’t really see them producing a whole album in this vein, it’s another weapon in their arsenal. Tonebeds For Poetry demonstrates their liberating lack of preciousness, offering a full force reworking of sources, seeking to unroll lost threads and find new forms. Wonderful stuff.