Sam Lee’s American debut The Fade in Time presents an artistic wanderer with a deep reverence for the British folk tradition, an ear tuned to the broader world’s rhythms, and a restless heart. A journeyman whose varied endeavors range from wilderness survivalism to burlesque dancing, it is fitting that his chance encounter with renowned Scottish Traveller singer Stanley Robertson set him upon his musical career. Robertson’s tutelage led Lee to understand the need for a new generation of song collectors to keep the old songs alive and make them vital in a new millennium.
The British folk ballad tradition is an endless store of inspiration and variation. Like the stories of The Old Testament, they collectively contain the beauty, tragedy, faith, and folly of humankind, and like that collection’s influence upon the literature of the centuries that followed, so have these old songs guided the development of the American and British popular songbooks. Lee’s interpretations of these songs is both a distillation of all that has come before and an adventurous beckoning to follow him into an uncharted future.
Lee brings a scholar’s care to annotating his songs’ origins in his liner notes, crediting his teachers and sprinkling soundbites of the past songkeepers throughout the album. We hear Charlotte Higgins sharing an “old old song” with collector Hamish Henderson from 1956 in the intro to “Lord Gregory” while “Bonny Bunch of Roses” opens with a sample of a Serbian singer from a 1952 Smithsonian Folkways recording. As many of the versions of the songs Lee sings have their origins in Traveller and Romany Gypsy cultures, they offer creative and surprising variants upon their formally known sources. “Over Yonders Hill” offers a variation of “The Bold Young Farmer” with its lament of, “I wish my baby was born and sits smiling on his own daddy’s knee.” And the ancient and familiar “The Cuckoo” appears within the refrains of “Moss House”. Lee’s rich baritone on these songs shows the depth of his learning from Robertson and from others such as Martin Carthy and Ewan MacColl.
It is in Lee’s musical arrangements under the guidance of producers Arthur Jeffes (Penguin Café) and Jamie Orchard-Lisle that this album takes off into uncharted territories, suggesting a wide mix of influences and inspirations. One hears the psychedelic-tinged influence of the first British folk revival artists like Fairport Convention and, especially, their jazz-influenced contemporaries Pentangle. There are ample neo-traditionalist flourishes, such as dominated Celtic music of the 1970s like the Bothy Band and Silly Wizard, and even a (thankfully small) whiff of the airiness that defined the genre as it crossed into mass appeal during the 1980s. But the album’s sonics are dominated by an adventurous worldliness and sometimes cacophonic layering of surprising sounds and instruments. Hints of Bollywood and arabesque styles merge with more percussive modern classical or post-rock elements. At times, the instrumentalists — particularly Steve Chadwick on horns, Jonah Brady on koto and ukelele, Flora Curzon on Violin, Francesca Ter-Berg on cello, and Josh Green on percussion — build into a trance-like backing that evokes the neo-psychedelic folk of Erland and Carnival. Their playing is organically connected even when working in dissonant counterpoint.
This album, which follows upon Lee’s 2012 Mercury Prize-nominated release Ground of Its Own, rewards repeat listening. It’s an album that, even in its quiet moments, refuses relegation to the background. In short, it serves to announce the arrival of a great talent who promises to find new ways to keep us singing the old songs well into another century.