Jez Lowe &
the Bad Pennies,
(Green Linnet, 1995)

British folksinger Jez Lowe has an exceptional gift for putting emotions into songs. His 1995 album with the Bad Pennies, Tenterhooks, is a great source of those emotions.

Listen once or twice and you might write the album off as good background music. Sure, the music is good and the singing is pleasant, but it's easy enough to leave it there and dig no deeper. Shame on you if you do! Cock an ear for a few moments of attentive listening, and you'll find yourself being drawn into the lyrics, both for the stories they tell and the moods they evoke.

The first few seconds should tip you off; the didgeridoo provides an interesting counterpoint to the bowed bass and the four-part chant which leads into the song "Sons of the Century," a seemingly light-hearted anthem.

All four members of the Bad Pennies sing, but the spotlight shines brightest on Jez Lowe and Bev Sanders, both in duets and solo outings. The expressive vocals are well-balanced with the instruments on this album -- Jez plays guitar, cittern, harmonica and whistle and Bev plays whistle and percussion, while Bob Surgeoner adds double bass, keyboards, slide guitar, accordion and banjo, and Billy Surgeoner provides fiddle, keyboards, whistle and double bass (plus a bit of unexpected saxophone in "Sweep Horizons Clean").

The balance is perfect. For instance, in "Bait Up," it's Jez's cittern and occasional whistle which are the most obvious instruments, but it's Billy's keyboards and Bev's nonverbal vocals which provide the real foundation of sound. Billy also provides a poignant whistle track on "Dry Season Land."

"The Crake in the Morning" begins as an a capella solo and builds to a four-part vocal harmony which suits well the ghostly atmosphere of the words. "The Guilts" is a fun, happy song, but beneath the carefree melody is a firm message about selling out to success. "So while you say 'round blowing bad harmonica / I made money as a right wing scavenger. / I closed my eyes to the poor and oppressed, / If I couldn't make profit, then I couldn't care less."

Then there's the easygoing, touching pleasure of "Aloysius," a song any dog owner or animal lover will find tugging at a few heartstrings and leaving a smile behind on your face. "Now any new tricks he was much too old to teach / But he could still lick the parts you wish that you could reach / But he wouldn't growl, he wouldn't bark or howl / He wouldn't move a jowl, but for food and drink and kisses...." The song "Alibi Child," featuring Bev on vocals, is a heart-wrenching look at a broken family.

Jez proves his ability to stand alone with the "Tenterhooks," which features his voice and guitar alone. Then all four combine excellent vocal harmonies and a lively instrumental for the medley "Homefires/Felton Lonnen/Here's the Tender Coming," a perfect closer for the album.

Tenterhooks is a must-hear for fans of good folk music. It doesn't get much better than this.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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