Lankum: Between the Earth and Sky – a review

“I’ve just heard this song,” I tell my husband. “You have to listen to it.”

He looks at the track listing.

“I saw them do this live at Normafest.” He shakes his head, exhales slowly and makes the kind of face that tells of someone who’s still coming to terms with a deeply profound experience. “Wow”. He trails off and leaves the room.

Such is Lankum’s musical power, that I suspect that their rendition of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ might elicit a similar reaction. Their last recording, Cold Old Fire, was one filled with more barnstorming, sing-a-long numbers (‘Sweet Daffodil Mulligan’ remains a favourite), but Between the Earth and Sky sees a shift in tone to one that’s more overtly political.

Sure, there was ‘Salonika’ last time, but right from the first notes uttered by the astonishing Radie Peat on their opening track, ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money?’, this album is much more of sucker punch to the psyche. It’s all raw power, stripped back arrangements and ethereal harmonies, and it does – quite frankly – knock the wind straight out of your sails.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, the song that elicited that aforementioned reaction. Though there have been many versions over the years (The Dubliners and The Wakes to name a couple), none are presented with such bleak intensity as this arrangement. Others may have tapped into the marching tempo, but sung a-cappella, there’s a deeply unsettling notion that this song is one to be sung as part of a chain gang, a work group or internment camp… and indeed it was.

Perhaps it is because I first listened to this track on a particularly misty, dank morning looking out over a marshy field, but that’s exactly the image that this music evokes. I defy you not to get chills when you hear their harmonisation of the word ‘moor’ at the end of the first verse.

We continually ponder the definition of folk music here on the Grizzly Folk blog, and, while it’s an ongoing discussion, one thing we all agree on is that it endures because the songs are vessels for contemporary interpretation. ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’ and ‘The Turkish Reveille’ are not new compositions, but they feel painfully relevant – timeless despite their vintage.

Between the Earth and Sky shares an impassioned quality of those old field recordings of folk music, in all their grainy, simple and bare glory. The power here comes from stripped back musical accompaniments; the band favouring layered harmonies and the unsettling drone of the harmonium over more complex arrangements. It’s a sound that lends a more authentic interpretation of those songs from the canon, and makes Lankum’s original compositions seem equally timeless.

Lankum have always been a thoughtfully political band, and there’s a strong theme throughout of being part of the rank and file of war, conflict and political oppression. The witty lyricism of their own compositions are as on-point as ever, but the steadfast social conscience remains.

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