THE constituent parts of the Young’uns turn 30 this year but, by folk’s standards, the vocal trio are still whippersnappers and they’ve lost none of the fire that has propelled them from the clubs of their native Teesside to national fame.
Their fourth album Another Man’s Ground (Hereteu Records) is a fine showcase for the full-throated harmonies, wicked humour and — above all — working-class dignity, decency and compassion that have been common themes throughout their burgeoning career.
As usual this album’s a mix of covers and originals, with highlights including Ewan MacColl’s radio ballad School Days Over, a bittersweet vignette of the boys putting aside childish things for a life at the coalface, plus a stirring take on Between the Wars, Billy Bragg’s call for solidarity and pride from the era of the miners’ strike.
The Young’uns’ own songwriting improves with every album and they have a keen eye for a true story — most strikingly here Brewster & Wagner, the tale of a lost Tommy saved by a German sergeant in the trenches of WWI.
It seems they’re still learning to write for their own voices, though. Their own compositions often fall into the slow-and-sentimental trap and lack the thunderous force and cleverly twining harmonies they bring to their covers.
But when they open their throats and let rip they’re reminiscent of their fellow northern greats the Watersons and, at 30, that’s pretty good going.
Sam Lee’s another thirtysomething with a skyrocketing reputation but there end any similarities to the Young’uns’ beer-and-pit boots vigour.
The Londoner spurned the usual route of folk clubs and archives, instead spending much of the last decade going out into the wild to learn directly from the source.
Britain’s oppressed and shrinking Gypsy and Traveller communities — where centuries-old songs are still being passed down by ear — provided the material for 2012’s Mercury-nominated Ground of its Own and his follow-up The Fade in Time (Nest Collective).
But don’t mistake Lee for a stick-in-the-mud. He matches his smoky, ethereal voice to a startlingly inventive series of arrangements.
Instruments range from fiddle, banjo and brass to the Indian shruti box and Japanese koto, the Roundhouse Choir lend spirited vocal support and Lee casually mentions Tajikistani wedding marches and court music from Japan among his musical influences.
At times his ends and means seem to be at cross purposes, the arrangements a shade too fussy and Lee’s delivery too mannered for the material. Why go to such lengths to track down the source if you don’t want to drink the water pure and clear, after all?
But when the invention and the material really mesh, such as the driving percussion of Bonny Bunch of Roses or the soaring, twisting Blackbird, the results are magical — an alchemical transformation of these ancient songs.
Meanwhile Dan Walsh’s sparks-flying clawhammer picking has put him in strong contention for the title of Britain’s best banjo player, and Incidents & Accidents (Rooksmere Records) proves he can match up virtuoso playing with winning songwriting.
Walsh is at home with both the bluesy, restless style of the Appalachians and the Scottish and Irish dance tunes he started off playing.
But he also has a relentless thirst for eclectic sounds and collaborations, which shines through here in The Whiplash Reel, an audacious marriage of Celtic dance and Indian classical that’s just one high point of an album crackling with energy and ideas.