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Album review: Pete Morton “The Land of Time”

October 20, 2015

With ‘The Land of Time’, Pete Morton has created a fine collection of contemporary folk songs which aren’t afraid to face up to some of the more pressing issues of our time with wit, intelligence and nuance. These are rare qualities too often missing from much music today.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Pete Morton "The Land of Time"The Land of Time is the new album by Pete Morton, the London-based singer/songwriter who seems to have been saddled with the ‘most promising newcomer’ label since his first album in 1987. Fourteen albums later he’s still going strong with a heady brew of contemporary folk and politically aware, socially conscious lyrics and he just gets better and better. It’s a mystery to me why he’s not as well known as, say, Martin Simpson or Richard Thompson or even Billy Bragg, but such are the vagaries of a musician’s life. The Land of Time is Pete’s second album for Fellside Recordings; his first – 2014’s The Frappin’ and Ramblin’ Pete Morton – foregrounded a distinctive aspect of his style, a technique he calls ‘frap’ (folk-rap) which draws inspiration from the ‘talking blues’ popularised by Woody Guthrie and developed by such luminaries of the 1960s folk revival as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and others.

While the opening ‘The Herefordshire Pilgrim’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a talking blues, it is possessed of a densely-worded, half-spoken, half-sung lyric to which the label ‘frap’ may, I think, comfortably be applied. According to Pete’s description on the album’s sleeve notes, it’s “a nod to William Langland in the style of his personificating conversations and where a pilgrim travels with forgiveness on his mind through the two towns that lay claim to his birth” which, I must confess, took me a couple of readings and some googling to even come close to making sense of. As I understand it, William Langland is believed to have written the 14th century ‘dream vision’ Piers Plowman, regarded by many as one of the great works of English literature alongside the likes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but, not for the first time, my lack of education lets me down badly and I’m still a long way from fully apprehending the deeper meaning of the song. Leaving aside the lyrical content, it’s a fine uptempo song with Jon Brindley’s guitar adding some well-placed musical punctuation to Pete’s insistent acoustic guitar and James Budden’s walking double bass and Ciaran Algar letting rip with a sparkling fiddle solo at the bridge.

‘Bloomsbury Boy’ lets Pete catch his breath in a gentle, observational ballad about central London and some of its landmarks and their occupants over the years. Ciaran’s fiddle drifts dreamily over Chris Parkinson’s reflective piano in this pretty song which Pete in his sleeve notes cryptically says is “about the kind of value or love that supersedes everything else”. The line in the lyric stating ‘the king is my Bloomsbury boy’ adds to the mystery of who the Bloomsbury boy might be and for the second time in two songs I find myself frustrated by my ignorance and consequent inability to understand the message Pete is trying to convey.

Derived from ‘Poverty Knock’ (Roud 3491), ‘Poverty Frap’ rails against the lack of progress in improving working conditions from the industrial woollen mills of Yorkshire in the late 19th/early 20th centuries to the modern-day sweatshops of Bangladesh, where there have been numerous factory-building tragedies in the past decade, including the 2012 Dhaka fire and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. Pete makes the point that, just as the inequalities exploited by wealthy capitalists haven’t changed in a hundred years, neither have the effects on those who find themselves caught in the jaws of a dehumanising system which values them only for what they can produce. Chris’ accordion and Ciaran’s fiddle acknowledge the song’s origins in the English folk tradition and, while I can’t fault Pete’s commentary, it’s worth remembering that the UK too has its own long and dishonourable tradition of clothing industry sweatshops which has persisted into the 21st century. All in all, a powerful and thought-provoking song and a definite highlight of the record.

Lyrically, ‘All the Life Before’ is an ambitious but thoughtful look at the history of humankind since our origins in Africa some 200,000 years ago, reminding us that it’s our past which has brought us to where we are today – and this is as true of the species collectively as it is of any one of us individually. The arrangement is slow and spacious with a gorgeously overdubbed violin break, while Pete’s strong vocal performance is a reminder of his own past, learning his craft as a busker on the streets of Europe.

This wider, more philosophical musing on the human condition also informs ‘Lucky’ which is, as Pete’s sleeve notes explain, “about just being lucky in a world that asks us to ask for so much more”. The arrangement swings between a world-weary melancholia heightened by Chris’ accordion and a more uptempo chorus lifted by James’ double bass.

The concept of luckiness is further explored, albeit in a more personal context, in ‘One Hundred Years Ago’ which tells of Pete’s grandfather’s wartime experiences, his narrow escape from a potentially fatal wound and how his life unfolded thereafter. It’s a sensitive topic which could easily have drifted into schmaltzy sentimentality but Pete handles it with love and affection and the result is a gentle country blues carried by Ciaran’s banjo and a windswept harmonica.

The 19th century ‘Up to the Rigs of London Town’ (Roud 868) told the cautionary tale of a man who visits London, where he wines and dines a woman before taking her to bed. While she sleeps, he steals her jewellery and money, locks her in her room and makes off with her material wealth. In ‘Slave to the Game’, Pete retells the story as a frap, slow and melodic with some lovely bouzouki from Ciaran and melodeon from Chris. The twist in this reworking is Pet’s reframing it in a modern-day context, imagining the woman to be a refugee seeking to make a living in the only way open to her, even though this leaves her exposed, not only to thievery from her clients but also to exploitation by human traffickers. It’s a difficult subject which Pete approaches sensitively and it’s to his credit not only that he’s tackled it but that he’s managed to avoid the misogyny implicit in the original.

The title track ‘The Land of Time’ moves from the political to the personal with a quiet ballad dedicated to Pete’s son and a reflection on the fulfilment that parenthood can bring. Jon’s guitar and Ciaran’s fiddle cradle the song with tenderness, it’s an interlude of calm and tranquillity to soothe and comfort.

The modern-day sea shanty ‘Old Boston Town’ imagines what a 17th century ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher might have to say about the international arms trade. Given the recent arms fair held in London, the ongoing public debate about the Trident nuclear weapons programme and, of course, the prominence of folk music in the anti-nuclear protests of the 1950s and 1960s, this is a particularly timely commentary and it’s good to hear a contemporary folk musician taking up the baton. A highlight of the album, not least because it’s a subject close to my heart.

‘Oh, What Little Lives We Lead’ brings the record to a close with a reflection on the smallness (and small-mindedness) of humanity in the context of the immense timescales of our collective history – and our planet’s. Instrumentally it’s little more than Pete’s strummed guitar and Ciaran’s mandolin but would make a great soundtrack for lying on your back outside on a clear summer’s night and looking up at the stars.

With The Land of Time, Pete Morton has created a fine collection of contemporary folk songs which aren’t afraid to face up to some of the more pressing issues of our time with wit, intelligence and nuance. These are rare qualities too often missing from much music today and singer/songwriters like Pete Morton should be valued for their contributions, both as musicians and commentators.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (20 October 2015)

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