A contemporary Wigan folk-rock album that covers current issues and manages to sound live even when recorded under COVID constraints
Wigan’s Merry Hell are at the folk end of the AUK musical spectrum and are considered by some to be one of the better live roots music attractions in the country. Clearly this does pose a problem for the band given the current state of the live music industry. Their 6th album, ‘Emergency Lullabies’, is an album that reflects the extraordinary events of 2020 in its lyrics and also manages to follow that great folk tradition of putting meaningful lyrics with stonking tunes ensuring a good time can still be had by all. The live-in-the-studio feel is all the more remarkable given that the album was recorded remotely under COVID secure constraints by the individual members of the band with founding member John Kettle producing.
John Kettle formed the band with his brothers, Bob and Andrew, in 2010 out of the remnants of the folk-punk band the Tansads. The genesis of ‘Exceptional Lullabies’ can be found in the pre-production work Merry Hell did in the French Jura Mountains before returning to their Wigan studio just as lockdown started. Added to this, there are five songwriters in Merry Hell coming up with the fourteen tracks and the whole band is augmented by the 200 plus strong Key Workers Chorus and the Social Isolation Choir on ‘Beyond The Call’, a love song to the NHS. The album opens with a lament written just after the 2019 general election, ‘Go Down Fighting’ and it has an anthemic quality from the getgo. Fiddle player Neil McCartney’s ‘Leave It In The Ground’ is up next and not surprisingly this is an ecological fiddle lead tune. Virginia Kettle is featured on vocals on ‘Three Little Lions’ which is one of the highlight tracks. Things are slowed down for the ballad ‘Handsome Sally’ which is another leading track on the album. ‘Sister Atlas’ again features Virginia Kettle on vocals and is about Greta Thunberg. Mandolin player Bob Kettle’s tune ‘Sailor ’is up next. Title song ‘Emergency Lullabies(Wasting Time)’ ponders the little time we have left to change things. ‘We Are Different We Are One’ is another song coming out of the COVID experience. Just in case anyone was wondering, they also exhibit a sense of humour by the Virginia Kettle sung ‘Violet’ with its echoes of Gracie Fields and the heyday of the English Music Hall.
The album cover gives a clear indication of the subject matter of ‘Emergency Lullabies’ with its collage of images on planet earth but the tracks are not hectoring or preachy rather they are heartfelt with tunes that show the best of folk and folk rock traditions. Merry Hell are your classic festival band who have still managed to convey the same sense of enjoyment and emotion despite the troubled times and the purely technical challenges of recording in a COVID safe way in 2020. The album is a well-balanced mix of ballads and anthems over its fourteen tracks with several standout tracks that go beyond what is festival fodder, with a hint of English Music Hall in case everything gets too intense. Listeners could do a lot worse than have their home COVID secure festival listening to the album drinking their favourite tipple and in the current circumstances that makes this album even more topical.