With erstwhile tomfoolery taking a twisted turn, English mushrumps shift their shenanigans towards the future.
This ensemble never took themselves too seriously – unlike their music which, for all its joviality, has always been delivered with sober virtuosity and had an air of import about it – yet merriment seems to become the artists’ new modus operandi nowadays. Perhaps, 2018’s “Reinvention” – the band’s first studio record in four decades – explicitly hinted at the turn of events, but there’s still an element of surprise in that album’s follow-up where puns and jests, and cover artwork, rule the day. As three original members – woodwinder Brian Gulland, guitarist Graeme Taylor and drummer Dave Oberlé – steer their vehicle through time, they cross more and more stylistic frontiers, and medieval mold, the collective’s defining feature, feels less and less significant; and though such a change may be not to every aficionado’s taste, the simmering experimentation in the veterans’ veins can’t fail to impress.
It’s quite disorienting when the titular opener introduces, via violin lick, funky grit to the group’s oeuvre before bassoon passages emerge to redirect the soulful aural assault to saloon and then to bucolic pastures whose idyll will be broken by a snippet of vocal comedy, while the chamber-like “A Bit Of Music By Me” – which second reedman Andy Findon based on a piece his late brother wrote ages ago, as also is the case with the lively-to-stately minuets of “Suite For ’68” – comes across as bittersweet in its cymbals-spiced weave of clarinet, fiddle and six-string strum. Still, the sextet get engaged into creative roulette here, the entire line-up shifting the composing load around: Graeme, rather than Brian, has “The Brief History Of A Bassoon” half-humorously enhance the ensemble’s minstrelsy lore, and Gulland, not Taylor, has the harpsichord-driven, breezy instrumental “Percy The Defective Perspective Detective” breathe hilarious solemnity into the album’s flow.
Yet then a distilled folk ballad “Christina’s Song” sees Clare Taylor let her bow weep and set a Ms. Rossetti poem and a female voice – an unprecedented sound on this combo’s record – as well as the crystalline “A Stranger Kiss” into their romantic heart, whereas the wordless “Forth Sahara” which bassist Rob Levy wrote grips it with electrically charged, if plaintive, flute-flaunting motif of a fusion stripe, until the elegant, riff-ruffled “Krum Dancing” uplifts the mood again. Not to an extent of what “Normal Wisdom From The Swamp (A Sonic Tonic)” does in an effervescent manner that draws on Renaissance and rock ‘n’ roll in equal measure to land on a quirky duet and usher in “Parting Shot”: sung by Oberlé with a moving warmth, the album’s finale would contradict the record’s title but both invite the listener for a bumpy, albeit joyous, ride for these numbers to grow on one’s ear.
You need to get out to get in, after all.