Tim Van Eyken,
Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves
(Topic, 2006)

While Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves is Tim Van Eyken's debut album under his own name, he is certainly no newcomer to the British folk scene. Van Eyken was 1998's winner of the prestigious BBC Young Folk Award, and has spent the last five years touring and recording with British folk legends Waterson:Carthy.

Van Eyken has a plaintive, austere voice, with shades of Martin Carthy, from whom one may assume he learnt much of his trade. The production of the album has given it a lovely, dark and brooding aura, permeating even the more lively moments. By hooking up with proven musicians such as Nancy Kerr (violin, viola) and Oliver Knight (guitars) Van Eyken has secured a high quality of musicianship, the worth of which is demonstrated throughout the album.

"Australia" provides a laudable platform for Van Eyken's vocal capabilities, with minimalist accompaniment -- Kerr's violin playing is particularly expressive -- augmenting his voice perfectly, and never detracting from the sheer beauty of this reflective piece. The haunting Kerr vocals on "Gypsy Maid," combined with the overall ominous sound of the track, evokes the type of atmosphere that Daniel Lanois perfected on Emmylou Harris's Wreckin' Ball album.

The contemporary truly meets the traditional on "Fair Ellen of Ratcliffe," a traditional ballad that is cleverly married with a thoroughly modern, atmospheric rhythm and bass arrangement. This works particularly well at drawing out the drama of the lyrics, in much the same way that Fairport Convention did in 1969 with their groundbreaking folk-rock arrangements on Liege & Lief -- Van Eyken brings this concept right up to date on this particular track.

A couple of instrumental tracks turn the spotlight on Van Eyken's accordion playing. "The Pearl Wedding/Nancy Taylor's" have a delightfully traditional English sound to them, with the inclusion of sensitive accompaniment on guitars, bass and drums supporting the natural rhythm of the tunes, but never stealing from the authenticity of the sound. "Bonny Breast Knot/Barseback Polka" starts out with a very ethnic sounding electric guitar riff, before Van Eykens accordion takes over on top of modern percussive beats. Kerr's accomplished fiddle playing is the perfect foil to Van Eyken's accordion on both occasions.

Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves is a stellar example of how the tradition can be enhanced with sympathetic contemporary arrangements -- maintaining the integrity of the material, but simultaneously making it palatable to a wider audience and ensuring its longevity. The tradition is safe in the hands of Van Eyken and his colleagues, and his is sure to be a name that plays an important role in the evolving English tradition for many years to come.

by Mike Wilson
24 February 2007

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