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Stick In The Wheel, Jon1st, Nabihah Iqbal & Olugbenga, Perspectives on Tradition – a review

Stick in the Wheel bring new perspectives on tradition in the company of musicians unassociated with folk music, to fascinating effect.

Release Date
1 July 2022
Stick in the Wheel present New Perspectives on Tradition
A fascinating collaboration from the Cecil Sharp House archives, orchestrated by a duo known for pushing the envelope to often thrilling effect. Leave your expectations at the door. This is an artistic interaction with traditional music unlike any other.

Back in 2019, Stick in the Wheel (SITW) began work on a new set of recordings. Natural collaborators, Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter took a group of musicians largely unconnected to folk music into the archives at Cecil Sharp House to see what kind of creative sparks might fly. In the lead-up to the pandemic, Jon1st, Nabihah Iqbal and Olugbenga engaged with SITW in a research and recording project in the Trefusis and Storrow Halls. With the intention purely to engage with the archive rather than create a finished product, things ground to a halt as the country shut up shop. However, during lockdown, Nicola and Ian revisited the work they’d done during lockdown and found their eyebrows raised: “we made a record,” their press release states, “and it’s one that surprised us”.

Perspectives on Tradition is, indeed, a surprising record, but that shouldn’t come as news to listeners in itself. After all, the project encouraged musicians from a largely un-folk background to respond to the historical documents they found in the archive. You’d be somewhat perplexed if Jon1st – a turntablist, club DJ, and former DMC scratch champ – suddenly found himself reaching for a fiddle and strapping on a set of Morris bell-pads. The intention of this collaboration was to capture whatever frisson might occur when these musicians shook off the dust and viewed the material from their own artistic sensibilities.

Jon1st’s collaboration with SITW on ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ [Roud 3] is an example of how inspired the project turned out to be. Sampling a lost recording of two singers in a Leicester folk club, the voices hover over the musicians’ turntables with a cinematic quality – distorting yet radiant in almost church-like reverb. There’s a reverence here – something that is apparent in all of SITW’s work – and the collaboration shines because of it.

Olugbenga, a Nigerian-born producer, seems to have been equally as inspired. His dig into the archives brought up African folkloric collections, resulting in a euphoric explosion of harmony that weave its way around a spoken-word piece (‘Devil in the Well’), before giving way to a beautiful electronic creation that marries West African samples to heavily processed vocals (‘Bright-Eyed Boy’). You can certainly see why Stick in the Wheel felt they had something important on their hands. It’s intoxicating, and as the piece comes to an end, you’re left slightly frustrated that the pandemic brought the project to a seemingly abrupt end. Olugbenga is the only artist here not to feature on three tracks. What further inspiration might he have found?

Nabihah Iqbal approached the project with a personal interest in the world of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, resulting in the lead track, ‘The Milkmaid’ [Roud 298]. The fragility of the recording – you can almost hear the way the piano and vocal push the air in the room around – make it one of the most tender performances in the SITW discography, and a gentle intro to Perspectives on Tradition. Iqbal returns two tracks later with the more hypnotic ‘Farewell He’ [Roud 803], the cold wintery lyrics inspiring a companion piece to SITW’s brilliant take on ‘Drive the Cold Winter Away’ (Hold Fast, 2020).

The collection closes with an ensemble recording in more ways than one. Each collaborator brings something to ‘Euphoric Clashes’ (an anagram of Cecil Sharp House), but at the heart of the piece is the firm recognition that any interaction with traditional folk song is an interaction with those who sang it before. Iqbal’s delicate piano vanishes into an electronic haze of synths, guitars and samples, as Kearey intones the names of the source singers that passed on these gems so many years ago. It could’ve been sombre – an acknowledgement of the deceased – but it’s defiant, Kearey determined that these names are placed above those of the collectors – and as it crumbles into reverberating space, you’re left to think. It’s that kind of album, after all. Perspectives on Tradition is a profound piece of work from a fascinating set of collaborators, determined to bring new life to material that many people would have left in the cupboard.

Perspectives on Tradition was released on July 1st via from Here Records. It can be ordered from stickinthewheel.com.