Collected Works: Music
Race the Loser
We hear the wheezing of bellows, a hoarse, even exhalation that loops to form a breathy backing track. This rhythmic respiration is soon joined by the accordion’s rasping voice, the sound serrated like a sawtooth synth wave. The strummed chords of acoustic guitar and violin pulse in syncopation. Then fingers are removed from the strings of the latter, replaced by a horsehair bow. A tune is assembled from foursquare blocks, building to a searching, soaring phrase that seems to survey the land below.
Lau are a folk band keen to dispel accusations that the genre is outdated and stale. Their songs are crammed with complex jazz chord progressions, open song structures, irregular time signatures, and electroacoustic elements. A vibrant, centuries-old tradition not only lives on in their hands, but is developed and played with, taken somewhere new. The trio’s arrangements emphasise the interaction between different group members, the constituent lines laced together with technical virtuosity.
Only three of the album’s compositions feature vocals, with understated delivery matched by a sense of downtrodden restraint. The lyrics speak of financial hardship, industrial decay, and the destruction of the environment. The protagonist of ‘Throwing Pennies’ is aimless and moneyless, betrayed by a society in which gazes are averted as coppers are dropped to the floor: ‘I make do for shelter / See my breath most nights.’ ‘If there’s a net made to catch us,’ he later comments, ‘it’s riddled with holes.’
The album’s other tracks are instrumental fireworks. On ‘Torsa’, slow guitar arpeggios and double-stopped string discords give way to a melody that conjures up the rolling landscape of a Scottish island. In its second half, the piece bursts into an exuberant reel, finding newfound energy for the climb. Race the Loser serves as proof that, despite its old age, folk music is still as fit as a fiddle. The accordion may gasp for air, the singing may sound world-weary, but the ideas are far from exhausted.
Words by John Wadsworth
Question of the day
‘Goodbye My Darling’ by Sam Lee. He runs the Nest Collective, which is all about getting young people into folk and world music. (→)
– Rachael Ball, cartoonist and author of The Inflatable Woman (via The Brief →)