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Jon Langford and the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus - Skull Orchard Revisited

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Artist: Jon Langford and the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus

Album: Skull Orchard Revisited

Label: Bloodshot

Review date: Jun. 3, 2011

Jon Langford’s first solo album, Skull Orchard, was pegged on its release in 1998 as his most Welsh release ever. It was studded with odd consonants for one thing, places like Aberfan, Youghal and Rhondda. Moreover it was nostalgic, both lyrically and musically, for an admittedly imperfect lost Wales. Here tracts of industrial wreckage, port town decadence, minor historical events and figures were recollected fondly but roughly, in Langford’s gruff growls and extravagantly rolled Rs. Even in its original incarnation, backed by assorted Wacos and Mekons, listeners remarked on its folk-ish bent, hearing sea shanties and jigs in its rollicking ditties.

About a decade later, and via a circuitous route, Langford came into contact with the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, a group based in Toronto but steeped in the group-singing traditions of Langford’s childhood. He was in Toronto recording The Sadies’ live album when he met up with the chorus’ leader, Julian Murray, and soon was deep in beery plots for a touring musical of Moby Dick. Sadly, that never materialized, but Langford did invite the chorus to accompany him at a CeltFest in Chicago in 2007. The songs of Skull Orchard, he decided, were a natural fit. He wrote later, in the book that accompanies this reissue, that “The tunes on the original Skull Orchard album were unknowingly written with a Welsh male choir in mind….They were meant to be sung at international rugby matches in an alternative universe where Tom Jones is the president of a free Welsh republic and Garndiffaith win the Heineken Cup.”

That concert led to a full-scale re-recording of Skull Orchard with the Burlington Welshe Male Chorus as prime backing musicians. It is, at once, a mad idea and a wonderful one. The chorus encases Langford’s Clash/Who/rugby anthem aesthetic in deep caverns of vocal sound, giving even the most jaunty pub rockers (“Green Valleys”) an unexpected gravity. When matched to Langford’s more traditional, Welsh-inspired material, say “Pill Sailor," the multiple voices tip gruff-edged sentimentality into the elegiac. There is, not surprisingly, a convivial whiff of beeriness in all this. The vocal extemporizing at end of “Last Count” is entertaining, but it gives you a sense of just how easily this pack of drunken Welshmen could have gone off the rails.

The reissue, Skull Orchard Revisited, comes with a book, which is sort of a Langford family scrapbook. Lovingly put together, it collects old family photos and documents, as well as brother David Langford’s “South Wales Alphabet,” a sweet but unsentimental memoir of life in Newport. It is arranged alphabetically, so that C is for Cardiff and Q is for Queens Hill. Less geographically oriented entries include a long explanation of the drinking game Fizz-Buzz (F) and an account of Langford’s early scientific experiments (E), which consisted mostly of blowing things up. There are also a good deal of Jon Langford’s paintings reproduced here, often in conjunction with lyrics to the songs. And finally, there is an extended story by David Langford (a science fiction writer) about a whale and his (her?) dolphin friend, Flipper.

That’s a good fit, by the way, because Skull Orchard really has two homonymically-linked themes: Wales and whales. They come together in the album’s best song, “Youghal," about the filming of the 1956 movie Moby Dick in coastal Wales. Nostalgic in the best, most clear-eyed way, the song captures the upheaval of filming in a small town, the brief flurry of excitement and then a discouraging return to sameness. The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus is in particularly fine form during this track. After the final devastating verse, “The young left long ago / to look for work in London, Boston and Chicago,” their harmonies and counterpoints are pretty much all that’s left to soften the blow.

The original Skull Orchard has become hard to find now, so even a reissue would be a welcome thing. But Skull Orchard Revisited, with its expanded arrangements, its boozy male chorus and its lovely black-humored memoirs, is much more than a reissue, and that much more to be recommended.

By Jennifer Kelly

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