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HORSEPLAY - Roughshod

HORSEPLAY - Roughshod
Own label HP001

Horseplay is a new English quintet with none of the electronic props and lightweight songs this normally entails. The opening track is a fair indication of what's to come on the debut recording from this young Durham band. A powerful pipes-led medley starts with the bransle-like and original Redback Ball, then the North of England jig Old Wife of Coverdale followed by the Tyneside favourite Elsie Marley, and finally Washington's March, a lovely air which I haven't heard in years. The mix of Northumbrian pipe tunes, English classics, Borders dance music and the occasional new composition runs throughout the eleven tracks on Roughshod. Like I said, no songs.

Interestingly, none of the pipes played here are Northumbrian. Piper Paul Martin plays two sets on Roughshod, both by Deerness Pipes. Most tracks feature Border pipes, generally with a deep mellow tone, balanced dynamics, and perfectly in tune. There's more of a Scottish pipe sound on The Black Cock of Wickham, maybe because of recording conditions. The small-pipes give a very good approximation to the Northumbrian sound for All Night I Lay with Jockey. Of course, Horseplay is more than just pipes: there's flute, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, banjo introduced rather late, and the usual back line of drums, guitar and bass which for once stay at the back where they belong.

There's a charming pipe-free pairing of the air Lovely Miss Weir and the 11/8 jiggle Late Tuesday Morning, followed by one of several Playford tunes which Horseplay inject with their own version of Botox. Having said that, it's the piping that makes this album special: the timing and dexterity of Paul Martin's playing is exceptional, and you have to listen hard to catch the rare hiccups. Things slip a little on The Third Drink, which is appropriate enough, and the Bulgarian pieces threaten to break loose, but this is still a top-quality debut.

One thing I do miss on Roughshod is a bit of improvisation and spontaneity. There's only so much entertainment in trotting out traditional tunes, no matter how well played. The element of surprise is a great fillip for any album, and it's not too plentiful here. New compositions such as Flutecase Suitcase and Boning the Turkeys provide a touch of the unexpected, and the penultimate track takes the pace off nicely with a pair of slow tunes: 11.30 in Mallaig and Lost Canoe (been there, done that). The final set returns to the big Northumbrian tunes, and leaves a very strong impression of Horseplay as unapologetically traditional musicians.

Definitely a band to watch: they even managed to bag for their internet presence!

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 71 of The Living Tradition magazine.