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Notes from the Shovel Dance underground

Gavin McNamara takes a listen to two missives from the world of Shovel Dance Collective: Offcuts and Oddities Volume 2, and the Jacken Elswyth-curated Betwixt And Between 10.

There’s something fascinating about the fanzines of the late-ish 70s and the mid 80s. They feel like little despatches from an exciting new world, one where new things were being created, where new voices were being raised. Sniffin’ Glue, Ripped & Torn or Are You Scared to Get Happy allowed for a collective love to be shown, democratic messages hastily stapled together, an immediate bulletin from the coalface. 

In some ways, these two cassette-released compilations have that ‘cool fanzine’ feeling to them. Both spring from the fertile ground of the Shovel Dance Collective and both document works in progress or life at the cutting edge. 

Shovel Dance Collection – Offcuts and Oddities Volume 2

Offcuts and Oddities Volume 2 is the third public release under the Shovel Dance Collective banner. It is a rough and raw mixtape of live recordings, rehearsal tapes, snatches of conversation, and tapes made in the field. At times you can hear the hiss of an old-fashioned tape-recorder, at others the pausing of a digital machine is obvious. Things speed up and slow down, splice oddly, warp and wind. There’s no perfection here, but these recordings seek to capture a moment – a movement, that is – excitingly, forever evolving.

If you’ve heard The Water is the Shovel of the Shore you might expect the London-based nine-piece to embrace wall-to-wall experimentation most of the time. ‘John Barleycorn’ [Roud 164], however, is played pretty straight. It’s acapella, delivered at pace, but has a creeping sense of malevolence about it, the deep voice exuding a disquieting menace. 

It is, probably, when the songs are left unadorned that Offcuts and Oddities shines the brightest. ‘My Singing Bird’ [Roud V43884] features a strangely delicate piano, and the voice is strangely delicate too. There’s a hint of Sam Lee in the unaffected honesty, a hint of Nick Cave without the Wild Goth God complex. Recorded live at St Andrew’s Church, Suffolk, the creak of a piano stool only adds to the hushed beauty. ‘The Bounty’, too, is a snippet of pure folk goodness. You can hear the raindrops and the wind as it’s captured live.

If all church music sounded like this, the pews would be full every Sunday

‘The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow’ [Roud 2124] is the most extraordinary track here. Recorded at St Mark’s Church, London, an organ entirely fills the church space. It is slow and drone-like, single chords stretching and reverberating against a voice that could have been captured at any time over the last thousand years. If all church music sounded like this, the pews would be full every Sunday. It is haunting and timeless, effortlessly connecting across time and space. 

There are two attempts at ‘Hanging Johnny’ [Roud 2625], the second one being the most fully realised – a shanty with humour that is as dark as a crow’s back, the voices commanding, the rhythm strict. The first attempt comes in a set with ‘The Grey Cock’ and ‘Galway Bay’, the wonderful harmonies descending into laughter as the humour gets the better of the singers. It is lawless and rebellious and is, as a gleeful voice declares on the outro, “a banger”. 

The spirit of shanty singing lurks in ‘Down by the Green Groves/Farewell to Whalley Range/Wild Goose Shanty’ [Roud 356/ trad slip jig/ Roud 328] too. Violin scratches, the clink of teacups and tape hiss form some sort of dreamlike (or nightmare-like) state. Laughter and high-pitched, wonky squeals only intensify things until the flutters subside and a pretty straightforward bit of folk harmonising takes the reins. A disembodied voice wonders, “Where’s all the ale?”, and a thousand nights at a thousand folk festivals are instantly conjured. The shanty sounds like fun; raucous and wild. 

The fragmentary nature of the album means that tiny snatches of things flutter to the floor sometimes. Two versions of ‘Claudy Banks’ [Roud 266] speak of rehearsal rooms; on one the voice is strong and bold, on the other, the violin is tentative. Both are layered with tape hiss, room noise and the whispered whirr of a cassette. There are two versions of ‘Banish Misfortune’, too, both less than a minute long, both filled with whistles, marching and joy. Only one has echoes of Trumpton though. 

When the traditional and the experimental clash, head-on, Shovel Dance Collective make a special kind of magic

When the traditional and the experimental clash, head-on, Shovel Dance Collective make a special kind of magic. ‘Joe Bane’s’ starts with wild fiddle and bird-like squawks until soothed by a harp. The fiddle becomes gentle, but simmers with a flicker of mischief. Strange percussion patters away making a traditional Irish tune thrilling, vital.

Shovel Dance Collective say that they are “committed to folk music not as an artifact to be unearthed, but as a communal activity”. On Offcuts and Oddities Volume 2 they allow us to be part of their living, pulsing conversation.

Betwixt and Between 10

Jacken Elswyth is one-ninth of Shovel Dance Collective and is the driving force behind Betwixt and Between, a series of split EPs released on cassette. Betwixt and Between 10 has Jacken’s bandmate, Nick Granata, on side one and Dawn Terry, one-third of drone-doom band, Bong, on side two. It is not for the faint-hearted. 

Granata’s side features three tracks all linked around chain and nail making. ‘My Chainmaker Lad’ [Roud 1126] is plaintive, yearning. A plucked fiddle slithers and skitters while the song itself tells of the delights of a Saturday night. There’s a very real possibility that this is no celebration though, closer to a dire warning. It fills the listener with unease, although it seems almost friendly compared with ‘Nailer’s Song’. A repeated eight-line melody and the careful layering of organ and fiddle would be hypnotic were it not so uncomfortable. The repetition of “hammer” and “clink” taps into your unconscious, an aural trepanning that threatens to overwhelm. ‘The Lord’s Nailmaker’ is the only original song on this side, yet it has the feel and resonance of the ballad tradition. It’s a startling tale of the crucifixion, and is deeply affecting, upsetting almost. A lone voice and percussion that sounds like a stapler makes music that is sparse and extraordinary.

Side two is no less troubling. ‘I Still Love You and Always Will’ takes up the whole of the side; fifteen minutes of darkly intense music. An accordion drone, long drawn-out notes that are finally joined by wordless singing, they are unspeakably powerful. If your ears could drown, it would feel like this. Eventually, you start to hear things that are, almost certainly, not there. A modern-day Stone Tape, this is psychological horror on a 30-minute cassette.

These two bulletins from the far-reaches of our folk world are as essential as any punk-facing fanzine ever was, as crucial to our understanding of where traditional music is going right now.

Offcuts and Oddities Volume 2 by Shovel Dance collective is available now from the Shovel Dance Collective Bandcamp page. Betwixt and Between 10 is available from the Betwixt and Between Bandcamp page.