Musicians of Bremen are an acoustic folk duo from East London. Their name was inspired by a Brothers Grimm tale about a trio of redundant farm animals who embark on a journey to the German town of Bremen where they hope to live out their twilight years as musicians. The duo features Howard on ukulele and Horsemouth on acoustic and slide guitar, a harmonium-like 70s keyboard and percussion. Their eclectic influences include the American folk revival scene of the 1960s, the soundtrack of The Wickerman and leftfield electronica.
Sorrows of Tomorrow is the opening song and it is a fantastic, well-crafted slice of folk-country melancholia which introduces us to the Musicians of Bremen’s bountiful existential anguish. Howard’s ennui-sodden lyrics lament the fact that we are unable to hold onto the moments that give us pleasure. This recognition sullies the enjoyment of moments in the present.
It is full of catchy slide guitar riffs, and the sentiment is delivered by Horsemouth and Howard’s wavering voices singing in imperfect harmony. It is redolent of the dirges of anti-folk which I particularly enjoy (Will Oldham in The Palace Brothers…) but it offers a more sophisticated arrangement of chords. As the song progresses the harmonies get higher and the emotional intensity increases.
The second song, The Golden One, is more upbeat and despite a jaunty, summery vibe, the themes of loss and being left behind predominate. The vocals here recall the Beach Boys and are satisfyingly harmonious even when describing the vengeful fantasies of a jilted lover. A vocal refrain of layered and deconstructed “wha, aargh” sounds works well and brings to mind a more restful version of T. Rex.
I am sad and lonely is the third number. It is an American traditional folksong (1927) covered by many artists including Susan Reed, and has also been sampled by DJ Shadow. This version is beautifully arranged with lovely finger-picking and subtle, sweet backing harmonies. It could be seen as the partner in melancholy to the first track, Sorrows of Tomorrow.
This opening lyrics, “I am sad and lonely, my heart it will break” alert the listener to the pitiful state of the singer. The lyrics contain the traditional folk references of rosy cheeks and tragic white lilies – which remind the listener that the outcome of adultery or romantic disaster is never pleasant – and it hints at the possibility of death.
Track 5 is called Painted Toes and is another jaunty number with a skiffle vibe. In light of the previous sad songs, our expectations of continuing misery are not thwarted as references to being left alone ornament the jolly and gently humorous song of supplication. Howard’s light northern twang is permitted to decorate this song, and a suitably folk-punk “yeah“, renders the musicians of Bremen’s offering to do a number of useful household tasks and paint the imagined other’s toes and possibly their own toes too; rhetorical.
Musicians of Bremen reference the beat writers and counter-cultural movement of the 1950s with track 8, Father Death Blues, a cover of a song by Allen Ginsberg. This sounds like a found field recording from the deep South and it has crackly time-worn appeal. The aesthetic is of an older blues fellow singing along slightly out of time to the accompaniment. The harmonium sound wobbles away in the high octave in a slightly random but rather effective way.
The ninth song, All my Dreams, recalls the chord sequence of Sorrows of Tomorrow, with its dark mournful lyrics, perfectly pitched harmonies, and pretty finger picking. It is perhaps with the most simple arrangements that the duo demonstrate their confidence at writing strong new folk songs with a traditional feel.
Second Skin, the twelfth song, could be seen as the left-field heart of the album as it successfully reworks the folk-country aesthetic. The track has a dance vibe, harmonium-like drone and deconstructed versions of finger-picking patterns, which all help to create an atmospheric, pleasing effect. Although it does not have a beat, the harmonium keyboard sound and vocal multi-layering effects give it the feel of an electronic composition, perhaps obliquely referencing Beck. When the rhythmically picking guitar comes in, it is low in the mix and seems to function as a beat.
Track 16 is a cover of a traditional French folk song called A La Luna
yo me voy. Afro-Cubism also do a version of this song. Horsemouth’s gruff voice channels Tom Waits in a dark smoky tavern with a bunch of gnarly older folk chatting quietly, perhaps smoking and playing cards. The different vocal styles work well together here and the track has a vintage radio vibe.
Musicians of Bremen have produced an impressive first album which pleases the listener on many levels, There is some repetition of familiar chord sequences in a couple of the ballads, but on the whole the album is a great success. Perhaps it would have been prudent to reduce the number of cover songs on a first album as the album could be seen as overly long for some tastes.
Sorrows of Tomorrow is probably the most obvious folk-country hit on the album with its perfectly poised existential sentiment and lyrical delivery. The subsequent numbers do not disappoint, and if you are a fan of downbeat melancholia with vocal harmonies, both sweet and gruff and a carefully arranged lo-fi folk aesthetic you will certainly love this album.
Musicians of Bremen’s new album can be ordered from http://www.discogs.com. A digital version of the album in mp3 format can be purchased from: http://www.musiciansofbremen.bandcamp.com and it is also possible to download all their cover versions for free.
Iona Tanguay September, 2014