It’s not often that I review music. In fact, I have never reviewed music. But for this album, I make a willing and lovingly amateurish exception. In their new album ‘The Hum’ (release date: February 14th 2014) gloriously northern folk duo Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow have managed to capture the heart of popular resistance, community and the intricate beauty of interwoven lives, aspirations and actions in society. This is everything David Cameron hates in one album.
‘The Hum’ takes you on a musical tour of modern life – with declining industry, social atomisation, the death of the local pub, pussy riot, corporate domination, suicide bombers and bees all making an appearance! It is defiant, immensely moving and inspiring. If you’ve been wondering where the musical retort to Austerity Britain has been hiding? Look no further, you’ve just found it.
The album opens with its signature track The Hum. The duo were inspired by a neighbour’s tale of the failed sale of a nearby house, after potential buyers were put off by the humming noise of the local factory. Her response was: ‘the sound of the factory gives me comfort, as it’s the sound of people working’. The song brings together the hum of industry and the hum of bees, and then layers on the collective sounds of daily life into a quite incredible chorus of our existence on earth. I could hear time cards stamping, industrial lathes, the screeching of rubber against steel, and then bees, myriad voices in murmur…a kind of working class life. This, together with the words of the final chorus, invoked a strange mix of nostalgia, sadness and hope – “The Hum is a factory, is a mine, is a playground, is a hive, is a garden, is a school, is a village, is a choir, is a forest, is a town, is a person, is a group, is a heart, is a mind, is the voice, is the hum”…indeed.
The duo achieve the same ends with cover Just a Note, which captures the lives of the navvies who built the M1 – a tale of hardship and separation from their families. The pneumatic sound effects again whisk you off so you’re not just listening to a song about these navvies, you are standing there among them like a ghost from the future. Their lives become tangible, not historical talking points.
On first listen Summat’s Brewin’ appears to be a humorous ode to the joys of real ale – and it is. But it is also operating on another level, it is a call to action. The song uses the allegory of the vibrancy and community attached to the local pub, the individuality of real ale, and the assault on both – with a call to arms to defend and restore them. “Anorak or anarchist, arouse arouse, your pint awaits!” Not only that – but it’s a proper foot stomper of a tune that I was singing my head off to even on first listen. It sounds like the kind of revolution I would show up for – joyful, loving, and based in our communities. “Common beer, not corporate!” – hell yeah!
I’ve never yet got through an O’Hooley and Tidow album without bursting into laughter or tears at some point, and this album is no different. Two Mothers tells the tale of a woman who was, as a baby, sent away to Australia as part of Britain’s controversial child migration scheme. It opens bare and lonely – just Belinda and the piano, rising in chorus to bring in Heidi’s perfectly complimentary voice ‘Come sing a song for the mothers, who held you in their arms when you were a child’. This melancholy lullaby makes you want to cry, then ring your mum and tell her you love her. Which, incidentally, is exactly how I feel every time I hear ‘One More Xmas’ from their first album ‘Silent June’ – although the songs are similar in no other way.
Peculiar Brood brings an instantaneous lump to your throat – telling the story of a suicide bomber from a mothers’ perspective. It’s a truly haunting song, with heart stirring strings and piano, while the harmonies fold over each other like sleeping kittens. Percussion is again used to place you at the scene, so you are watching this tragedy play out, not just hearing it retold.
Like Horses goes after the greed, waste and isolation of capitalism – and asks ‘why can’t we be like horses?’ – both gentle and powerful. My favourite line in the track describes the human being disenfranchised by this system as ‘inward grieving, outward seething, self-deceiving’ – I found myself nodding along to both sentiment and the thumping tune. And who doesn’t like random horsey sounds going off in the background? Really, Gerry Diver absolutely nailed the production of this album.
Come Down from the Moor is a look at how Ireland’s stark history of poverty and struggle continues – with a modern generation of economic migrants needing to separate from country and kin in hopes of employment in faraway places. The song closes with Belinda’s father Seamus reciting the duo’s beautiful poem, with Belinda in echo – and you get this sense of poverty and struggle as a hereditary condition, passed from parent to child, so long as the present state of affairs and power structures remains intact.
Coil and Spring is an ode to Pussy Riot’s infamous protest against Putin (co-written with Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba), and it captures the cheeky, foot stomping indignance of Pussy Riot, Occupy, the Indignados and other modern movements seeking to challenge the iniquities of our times. “There’s a new sound in the church, it’s the sound of a spanner in the works” is a line that gave me a belly laugh that any activist will be familiar with – that feeling that you are quite successfully getting in the way of unethical people doing unethical things.
Belinda and Heidi’s reworking of folk hero Nic Jones’ Ruins by the Shore is hands down one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard – in any genre. Nic Jones asks that anyone covering his tracks makes them their own, and avoids imitation. He says the pair ‘did him proud’ with this version, and having listened to the original for comparison – I agree. They have taken the bones (no pun intended) of a gorgeous track and elevated it to something utterly extraordinary. The song imagines a post-human world, where the leftovers of our existence are merely ruins by the shore. It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, and that mixture of peace and sadness at the reminder that we are temporary. One day we will be nothing more than the ruins that another species picks through and attempts to make sense of. Our hopes, beliefs, possessions, and bones, just relics of a bygone era. So what do we want to leave behind? And how close are we to self-annihilation?
The album draws to a close with part forbidden love song, part challenge to orientalism and the fear of the other, part defence of foxes (these women are awesome) Kitsune, based on the Japanese folk tale of foxes as intelligent beings with magical powers. My only amendment to this album would be to switch the playing order here and have Ruins By the Shore as the closing song.
So yes, this is an album worth getting hold of and you can pre order here. But don’t stop there. Go and see The Hum on tour. I personally cannot wait to hear this album performed live. O’Hooley and Tidow not only write great music – but their performance style of witty banter and emotive story telling is unparallelled in my experience. I went to five performances of their previous album ‘The Fragile’ over the course of 18 months after encountering for the first time at the Taunton LGBT Arts Festival, and each time was a stand out, gorgeous and unforgettable experience.
This album is a perfect time capsule of our bizarre and uncertain age, where the empowered beneficiaries of the status quo actively subvert the natural quest of human beings to evolve and better their circumstances. The album places us human beings back into nature, and reminds us that we are beautiful, powerful, co-operative creatures, capable of creating sustainable and prosperous communities worthy of our imaginations.
Here are Belinda and Heidi singing Ruins By The Shore live…
Oh, and in case you were wondering – no one paid me to write this. I’m sharing for no other reason than it is brilliant and I want you to experience it.