As Tradfolk’s correspondent in the East of England, I was keen to hear the latest release from The Shackleton Trio. They’d actually only recently appeared on my radar, but if a social media post about touring with a pet lizard doesn’t grab a vacantly scrolling instagrammer’s attention, nothing will. In case you don’t yet know them, they are Georgia Shackleton on fiddle, Aaren Bennett on guitar, and Nic Zuppardi on mandolin and banjo, with the album’s collection of interesting songs also featuring their vocal talents.
The trio is well known for seeking out and creating music that reflects their ties to this side of the country and this, their third album, is no exception. Named after an area of heathland that once extended from Norwich all the way to the Norfolk Broads (though it only just makes it to the inner ring road nowadays), Mousehold is an album with a strong sense of ‘place’. Aside from the title, there are name checks for other locations in and around Norwich – including Bridewell Jail, which is now part of the Museum of Norwich – as well as east to Barton Broad, and a tuneful nod westwards along the A17 to Byard’s Leap in Lincolnshire.
In the course of nine tracks, you’ll be transported to the (at most) gently undulating county of Norfolk. If you’ve ever attempted to visit, you’ll know there are only five roads and that they all go on for quite a while in a mostly flatwards direction – something about the pulsing of the plucked strings reminded me of unbroken views across the farmland and fens of ‘Nelson’s County’. The mandolin and guitar create a rhythmic base, driving the music onwards like an enthusiastic percussion section, over which Shackleton’s bright tones and lyrical fiddling sing out.
The traditional songs include the opening track, ‘No Road Across Mousehold’ [Roud V2919], which appeared in a broadside as ‘The Crack Shots of Norwich’. The trio have added a neat little chorus and, in doing so, have created a real earworm. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If, like me, you’re word-centric and enjoy piecing together a song’s imagery, you’ll be rewarded with some real gems – it’s a colourful patchwork of characters from a very different era.
There’s also the story of Snuffers in the ‘Ballad of Barton Broad‘, here with a new tune and a proper chorus. There was probably a time and a place for Harry Cox’s fol-di-rols, and that might have been 1940s Norfolk. It’s no good changing a song for the sake of it, but I think this is lovely improvement, and sits so perfectly in this ode to the East of England.
We’ve said this before on Tradfolk, but perhaps the highest praise for any disc which combines, as this one does, old and new material, is that the seams don’t show. Zuppardi’s self-penned ‘Mandy Lynn’ could easily have been unearthed in a dusty tunebook and given a metaphorical fresh coat of paint. I had to check the sleeve notes.
The arrangements are thoughtfully put together for the most part, though at times I felt they suffered a little from the unavoidable nature of the line-up. It was most noticeable in the uptempo songs, but without a sustaining instrument (perhaps a squeezebox), the only option to prolong the sound is to add more notes and more complexity into the plucked strings, sometimes to the detriment of the voice above. A bit more textural variation within each track might also have helped – perhaps they were all just super keen to play their part, but when it does occasionally happen, the simpler, more sensitive moments are a lovely contrast to the otherwise busy status quo.
All that said, if you can stop yourself having a cheeky head-bob along to this album, you’re not doing it right. It’s filled with lovely human stories and catchy tunes, played and sung with considered musicality. Not only that, but I have a sudden urge to hop on a train and explore Norfolk.
Mousehold, by the Shackleton Trio, is available now from their Bandcamp page. For more info on the band, head to shackletontrio.co.uk.