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Folk musician Sam Sweeney is standing on a rural hill, blue skies and fluffy white clouds behind him. He is struggling to escape a maroon, knitted jumper. Pulling it over his head, he exposes his midriff in the process.

Sam Sweeney, Escape that – a review

Sam Sweeney offers up his second release of the year, returning with an album that simply makes Tradfolk reviewer, Abbey Thomas, smile.

Sam Sweeney's Escape That album cover
Release Date
21 October 2022
Sam Sweeney, Escape That
While decidedly not traditional, Sam Sweeney's style is rooted in the tradition. However, on his latest album he finds new and unexpected ways of creating gorgeous fiddle music, and the results are nothing short of uplifting.

It takes an incredible amount of skill to be able to play traditional tunes in a way that brings them fully to life, taking them from barely-legible scribbles on a page into the world, into your ears. When achieved, it can feel as though the musician is pulling perfect ribbons of music from their instrument, a combination of beautiful tone and carefully-placed emphases coaxing the melodies to life, and it cannot fail to bring a smile to your face – at least, it certainly can’t to mine. Sam Sweeney is without a doubt one of these musicians, and his playing and musical approaches provide inspiration for countless people, myself very much included.

If you’re a veteran of the British folk music scene, Sam Sweeney is probably a name you’re familiar with. If it isn’t, you’re in for a real treat. His credentials are legendary: member of the folk supergroup Bellowhead, one-third of the trad English group Leveret, four-time nominee and 2015-winner of the BBC Radio Two Folk Award, collaborating with projects including the Full English and top caliber artists such as Eliza Carthy and Emily Portman. Plus, who could forget his appearance while donning a trademark folk knitted jumper in Richard Curtis’ 2015 film About Time?

When looking over Sam’s solo releases, it is very satisfying to see the path he is carving along the way. His first album, The Unfinished Violin, explored the heritage of his violin and the music which would have surrounded it throughout its life. Next, Unearth Repeat found traditional English tunes and brought other influences into their energy, reworking their arrangements with a new spirit, including electric guitar, into the blend. A solo EP, simply titled Solo, arrived earlier this year. All of which brings us to Escape That – a full album of original compositions, all purely instrumental, featuring (of course) fiddle at the forefront, but this time joined by an efficacious combination of acoustic instruments and electronic, synthesised sounds.

Escape That is the musical equivalent of a box of paints – happy and innocent, child-like but in no way simple, each track dripping with vibrant colour. It is absolute joy painted into music, so much so that I was surprised when, after listening, I read that these compositions were Sam’s lockdown project, “using snapshots of people and moments as inspiration in a time of isolation”. This album is truly a testament to the positivity we can conjure for ourselves in moments where we need it the most.

I have always been intrigued by Sam’s unusual working methods: I remember once seeing him on stage discussing a new method he was using to generate material, whereby he found a piece of archived sheet music, pinned it to a wall, and stood far enough back that he could see vague shapes but barely read any of it, and then played what he imagined it could be. I was struck by the ingenuity of this, of taking what already exists and using it to develop new pieces from there. Similarly, with this album, Sam took an unusual path to find these tunes, laying down chord progressions and then improvising over these progressions, listening back to find the catchiest parts and combine these into full tunes, and only then translating these melodies onto his fiddle.

A strong crunchy-effected guitar riff brings in the album with ‘Ruby’, and as the track grooves and swells I am overtaken with the feeling of victory it evokes. Every element of this piece, and indeed of the album as a whole, is a sum of pairs of juxtaposing elements – the organic melodies springing from the acoustic fiddle, against the almost jigsaw-like feel of the parts working together, like gears in a piece of smoothly-oiled machinery; the smooth natural fiddle tone adorned with traditional ornamentation, against the modern crunch or spacious reverb of the electric guitar.

‘Pink Steps’, written in honour of a perfect happy dream in which Sam envisaged himself climbing an endless fluffy pink staircase, sounds every bit as pink and delightful as it was designed to be. The shape of the melody climbs as though ascending this staircase itself, and hearing the arrangement and backing that mirror these upward steps is very satisfying. The tune itself contains one of my favourite traits in instrumentals, where the melody of the A part and the B part only differ subtly from their phrases swapping around, giving it even more of a continuous feeling of motion. It feels like dancing, weaving around, bouncy – a word I have used before to describe Sam himself on stage.

The title track itself evokes exactly its name – a jubilant feeling of freedom, of wanting to throw your arms in the air and dance, to run down the street towards your loved ones and cover them in kisses and love. The bouncy synth part in the background, the energetic acoustic strumming throughout, and that perfect melody singing from the fiddle. If the genre of folk had nightclubs, this would immediately be proclaimed an “absolute bop”.

Although the album contains this overriding feeling of simple joy, the pieces are anything but basic or shallow. Alongside the bright jewel tones on a paint palette it also contains splodges of darker shades, and the combination of these completes the set. ‘Nightshifting/ Atlantica’ is one track that adds this flip side, with sounds reminiscent of a traveller trudging along his way with a head full of questions. The contrast between the key changes within the tune parts of ‘Nightshifting’ feel increasingly heavy with the addition of more instruments part by part, and the resolve into ‘Atlantica’ feels like a release, leaving the listener with a feeling of triumph and elation. Similarly, ‘Under Gigantic Clouds’ has this push-and-pull: beginning with a rich opening chord, the melody takes a conversational tone, as if mulling something over, but then leaves behind a healing sense of acceptance. This considered contemplative mood is also threaded throughout the album – ‘Feet Together Jump’ feels meditative but not serious, and mellow, taking its listener out into the countryside on a long summer’s evening to feel the late golden sunlight on their skin. ‘Yoddin’ also brings to mind simple pleasures, taking you to your happy place.

For me, the takeaway from Escape That is simple: I listen to these tunes and smile. I want to get up and dance. I want to grab my instrument and play. We all have moments where we need to leave things behind for a moment, to ‘Escape That’, whatever “that” may be at the time, and I know this is an album I will return to again and again to do exactly that.

Escape That is released on October 21st and can be pre-ordered via this link, or through the artist’s website at samsweeneymusic.com.