At long last, here it is: quite possibly the most eagerly anticipated folk debut in recent memory. Eliza Carthy’s all-star line-up, which includes members of Bellowhead, Mawkin, The Furrow Collective, Faustus, and Edward II, among others, have finally released their album, after what I understand to be a hefty struggle to get the project off the ground. It has debuted at Number 25 in the national charts, and quite frankly, although I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with Carthy’s previous (extensive) catalogue of work, I confess myself absolutely intrigued and excited to see what the fuss is all about. As 'Fade and Fall' gets underway, I can colour myself impressed. It is an impressive opener, with musical changes ranging across several genres as it builds to a stylish James Bond-esque climax.
The female vocal harmonies throughout 'Devil In The Woman' then succeed in catching my ear immediately, with some fantastic work from Lucy Farrell to be particularly noted. Carthy’s voice then takes the lead again for 'The Fitter’s Song' alongside a spectacularly vaudevillian arrangement that continues to display the versatility of both the band and its leader; an inevitable but welcome by-product of collating such a large number of musicians of such a variety of styles together into one project. On that note, I have noticed a lot of people who seem eager to vilify Carthy’s work on this album as an attempt to imitate Bellowhead since their breakup last year; as the woman herself recently pointed out in another interview, “big bands” in folk have existed long before the Jo(h)ns’ project, and given how completely unique Big Machine sounds so far to anything I have heard before, I would have to agree that such claims are entirely unjustified.
The intro to 'Jack Warrall' works seamlessly from the previous track, and the tune develops into a fantastic battle between the guitars (David Delarre) and fiddles (Carthy, Farrell, Sam Sweeney). By this point though, I am starting to worry. Not about the album, mind, but about this review: so far I seem to be enjoying the album so much that I am running the real risk of overrunning my word limit by several miles! 'You Know Me' is a track that particularly stands out, with a guest appearance from hip hop rapper MC Dizraeli helping Carthy’s already looming vocal performance become a truly genre-defying work of art.
By this point, seven tracks in, I am surprising myself just as much as The Wayward Band is surprising me. Normally, even on my favourite albums, I can find something to criticise however minor on a first listen, but right now, on my first listen of Big Machine, I am just not finding anything. I was expecting it to be good, but not this good. It seriously is good: currently there in my top three albums I have reviewed during my time at Noizze (the other two being the latest releases from Faustus and Daria Kulesh). It’s musically diverse, with a wide range of vocal and instrumental work throughout, and although Carthy stays at the forefront it feels as if every other band member gets at least one chance to really show off what they can do.
'Mrs. Dyer The Baby Farmer', apparently taught to Eliza by her father, the equally-prolific Martin Carthy, brings the latter section of the album a nicely macabre story in which Carthy’s voice really takes the forefront in stunning a tour-de-force that is unfortunately all-too rarely seen on the modern folk scene, especially from a female vocalist. If I had to choose a favourite, that one would probably be it (though The Sea comes in later to seriously make me reconsider that), before 'I Wish That The Wars Were All Over' provides a slightly calmer respite to recover (from too much dancing around the kitchen).
As the album comes to a close with the delightfully weaving Epitaph, I cannot help but being reminded of similar genre-defying albums; in particular Refused’s 1998 cult classic, 'The Shape of Punk to Come'. This makes me wonder, is Eliza Carthy providing a glimpse of the shape of folk to come? I certainly hope so, and that leads me to my next task: to stick Big Machine on repeat for the rest of the week and buy tickets to every single show this band has coming up.
Album Score: 10/10 (and I don’t give that rating easily).