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Shovel Dance Collective gather on a Thames shore in a promotional photograph for their album, The Water is the Shovel of the Shore.

Shovel Dance Collective, The Water is the Shovel of the Shore – a review

The Water is the Shovel of the Shore feels like a turning point - an album that marks the arrival of a new generation of politically conscious traditional folk singers.

The Water is the Shovel of the Shore feels like a turning point - an album that marks the arrival of a new generation of politically conscious traditional folk singers.
Release Date
1 December 2022
The Water is the Shovel of the Shore, Shovel Dance Collective
Part journey, part political statement, the third album from Shovel Dance Collective drips with imagination. One of the best albums of 2022, if not the last five years, you'll have to go back to Lisa Knapp's 'A Garland for May' to find something that takes the breath away with quite so much aplomb.

Arriving on December 1st, The Water is the Shovel of the Shore is not a Christmas album. However, it does share something with A Christmas Carol. Just as Dickens took us on a transfixing passage through time and ever-changing scenes, Shovel Dance Collective pick us up and drop us in different corners and eras of London. With the waters of the Thames and her tributaries as our guide, we happen across traditional folk songs and tunes that fade in from the river mists and stumble out of aging dockland doorways. The album is an awe-inspiring mix of history, ballads, found sounds and musique concrète; a profoundly moving concept thrillingly wrought into being; a feat of imagination and extraordinary editing. It’s not something you pop on and sing along to. This is an album that deserves an excellent pair of headphones and an hour of your uninterrupted attention. It’s not like any traditional folk album I can remember listening to before. It’s like walking with ghosts.

Split into four sections, the album takes in snippets of song, each one drifting to the surface like unearthed memories. The traditional songs we hear on this river safari are all related to water – “artifacts crushed, smoothed, and dug by the force of the river,” as the album’s accompanying essay puts it. “Deep in mud and water, soil and bone, lie sounds of memories: moored ships jostle in the Pool of London, workers labour and laugh, sailors go to their deaths, mourning lovers weep tears, tears return to the river.” So far, so traditional – but it’s not as straightforward as that. The Water is the Shovel of the Shore is a Shovel Dance Collective album, after all, so it was never going to be something you sat and enjoyed purely for the pretty songs. It’s a political statement, and it has the capacity to arrest and disturb the listener. “Vital in the control of lands and people, water has its own culture, distinct from land cultures, formed by processes of colonisation, slavery, racialisation, movement of capital, goods, people.” Over the course of an hour, the water laps at our consciousness, bringing news and ideologies from across the estuary; from distant lands.

Alex Mckenzie’s enveloping low whistle arrives on a storm of drones, guiding us in like a beacon, dropping us on the banks of the Thames off Greenland Dock. Here we first encounter the combined voices of Shovel Dance Collective, Mataio Austin Dean’s low growl underpinning a windblown version of ‘The Weary Waling Grounds’ [Roud 2011] as gravel crunches underfoot. They have a way of sounding as though they’re singing from centuries past, the timeworn effect is only shattered here when a blast from a passing police vehicle snaps us back into the present. The wind changes, the ghost of tradition scoops us up, and we find ourselves on the Eastern Thames, where Jacken Eslwyth is musing through ‘The Bold Benjamin’ [Roud 2632] on her banjo. She can’t see us. We can only hear her. She’s out there amongst the howl of rigging and reeds on the Erith shoreline, appeasing the tides. And almost as soon as we find her, she’s gone.

It’s as though we’ve slept, but not for long enough. An agitated voice booms ‘The Herring’s Head’ [Roud 128] from a dripping tunnel and we dare to turn our attention towards it. It’s there ever so briefly, and in its wake the scratch and scrape of a fiddle edges, unseen, towards us. It’s unnerving, almost inhuman. It begins to take form and shape, but it’s hard to define. We hear hints of ‘Waves on the Shore’ but we can’t be certain. It’s claustrophobic down here – intoxicating – and we long for the sun. As the first section of the album ends, we appear to lose consciousness and we are grateful.

Part two opens with perhaps the most exquisite performance on the album. ‘In Charlestown there Dwelled a Lass’ [Roud 1414] is performed on the harp by Fidelma Hanrahan and sung, with as much drama and elegance as it may be possible to muster, by Nick Granata. This is not a snippet. The song is complete, and it’s incredibly moving. Once again, it’s entirely unique. Nobody else is performing traditional folk music in this manner. It’s the track you’ll return to again and again – one of the best performances you’ll hear this year.

The calm waters arrive and usher in a duet between Oliver Hamilton (fiddle) and Alex Mckenzie (low flute) on ‘The Rolling Waves’. It’s an impassioned performance that seems to excite the currents around them. By the tune’s end, we’re submerged – battered by the springtime waves that lash at the memories of the Cutty Sark. It’s a brief turbulence, however, passing quickly as Mataio Austin Dean hoves into view, romance and war on his mind. We’re down by Tower Hill and it’s ‘Lovely on the Water’ [Roud 1539]. “Oh Tower Hill is crowded with women weeping sore,” he reports. “For their husbands, sons and sweethearts, gone to face the cannons roar.” The lyrics are violent. The water laps gently around him, mocking the narrator’s plight, feigning innocence. We dream of dappled water in the sunlight. In the distance, ‘Waterman’s Dance’ strikes up and Joshua Barfoot’s hammered dulcimer fades in as though it has escaped from Sgt Pepper’s box of delights.

Drift along the river from City Hall to London Bridge. Step inside St Mark’s, Clerkenwell. Part three has begun. Daniel S. Evans is at the controls, and the pipe organ calms and overwhelms in equal measure. The wind carries its own tales on gusts through the church doors. Fences rattle, distant cranes grind on their pedestals. Jacken Elswyth and Fidelma Hanrahan send news of ‘The Full Rigged Ship’ while the clergy of Southwark Cathedral and St Magnus the Martyr bless the Thames.

We find ourselves at the end of an underpass. The rain beats down and the river has broken its banks. Somewhere amongst the insatiable weather and darkness, a crew wail ‘The Wild Goose Shanty’ [Roud 328]. They’re offshore amidst the howl of a gale. There’s nothing we can do to reach them. We can’t tell if it’s the thunder or the waves that eventually pull them under but as distant brass calls out ‘The Drowned Sailor’ [Roud 185], we know something of their fate. As daylight breaks and the seas calm, a bass harmonica intones ‘Captain Kidd’s Farewell to the Seas’ [Roud 1900]. The unbroken, ever-swelling body that gives life and takes it away notes no sense of tragedy. Another day begins.

Part four opens and we re-emerge, breaking the surface, thankful for air. Voices grab our attention from the banks of River Ravensbourne. Two souls commune in harmony, reverberating from Elverson Road DLR Station Tunnel, and it’s here we shall remain. One voice soars on the higher frequencies, finding a chorale aspect to ‘Lowlands’ [Roud 8286] in this damp, subterranean cathedral, while the other plumbs the depths. It’s utterly beguiling, but it is – once again – a false reprieve. The disjointed fiddle returns like an angered ghoul and the lower voice breaks into ‘The Cruel Grave’ [Roud 22567], almost as a reprimand. Disquiet abounds, continuing without let up as the higher voice competes with the rumble of a train above. Voice, locomotive and dripping tunnel combine on an emotionally charged version of ‘The Grey Cock’ [Roud 179], unleashing the full force of this mighty traveller melody. The final song, ‘Ova Canje Water’ aspires to freedom – to “swim and away” – and as the singers’ boots splash into the distance we’re left blinking about us, wondering where (and when) we’ve been for the last 60 minutes.

Make no mistake: this is one of the best traditional folk albums you’re likely to hear this year, or indeed any other years. It feels like a huge statement – a bar set admirably high. We’re beginning to see a new generation of traditional folk singers making their presence known here in England, and, like each generation before them, they will produce significant albums that people will look back on and recognise as turning points. The Water is the Shovel of the Shore will be the one to beat.

The Water is the Shovel of the Shore is released on Memorials of Distinction / Double Dare on December 1st. It can be ordered via this link. The collective will perform at St John on Bethnal Green on December 10th.

The map below shows, roughly, the locations that the album was recorded in, should you wish to hear it in situ.