Merry Hell – Emergency Lullabies (review)

Exuberant and rousing with a few inspired sentimental stops, Merry Hell still have a lot to say with their sixth album. 

RELEASED NOVEMBER 2020

What can we say of Merry Hell? They are a band often seen on the live circuit with an impressive turnaround of albums (this is their sixth studio outing); you could believe they are the folk world’s equivalent of oxen in a Renaissance painting with their ubiquity, whilst looking incredibly cheerful in their toils. Having listened to their latest offering “Emergency Lullabies” it is safe to say that Merry Hell continue to skillfully and happily pull the yoke of folk rock over our current fertile music scene and show us exactly how they continue to be seen and heard in all quarters.

Consisting of Virginia Kettle (vocals), John Kettle (guitar), Bob Kettle (mandolin), Andrew Kettle (vocals), Lee Goulding (keyboard), Nick Davies (bassist), Neil McCartney (fiddle) and Andy Jones (drummer); Merry Hell have forged a high path in the folk scene through their lack of pretentiousness, an iron-solid bit of songwriting and a kind of national concern and warm embrace contained in their music. The key to their success is surely that their albums are of very subjects that appeal across the political spectrum as, when all is said and done, they don’t try to score political points they just look for the good in people and society through hope, charity and joy. Once this is all mixed up with a well-developed Folk/Punk energy (from their time as the Tansads) we get a loveable, people-orientated band on a mission to cheer up and rally the populace. 

Their new album is an interesting beast as it seems to take a two-pronged approach to entertaining and pulling at the heart-strings. It feels like an album of two dates for your prom night. The first is a cheerful, self-assured protest marcher whose presence does not require added charm (or a megaphone), the other is a downright soppy guy arriving on your doorstep drenched from rain and clutching wild daffodils, slightly broken at the head of the stalk (but he knows how to woo in Latin). This duality, much like 1968’s film “The Odd Couple”, fills the album with charm and allows the magic to happen and spread across the album. This is all well, but what of the tracks?

“Go Down Fighting” has all the hallmarks of a classic Merry Hell Song that works by painting a sombre picture that of dark days to come which “we” can all bust with determination and grit , “bring in all your doubt and all your fears, bring the consternations of your years.” The track reminds of their previous work “We Need Each Other Now” and can be seen as the bread and butter pudding of Merry Hell’s vision and voice . Fighting their war with “peace and love”, their words spin on an active pacifism that has a feeling of a “warm glow” much like fluorescent coral of the sea. Backed with a bouncy, chopping electric guitar, thumping drum and a fine tonic of voices, it is a great opener to the disc.

Another song, similar in inspiring pride but vastly different in execution is “Three Little Lions” (track 3). Virginia Kettle takes the lead on vocals here, delivering a fable-like telling on what seems like England taking on a new identity in the world. Heavy in metaphor and spinning a story of the present and future through strong national iconography we get a spell-like song that calls to all the points on a compass. Complete with epic fantasy level chanting later in the track and some nice fiddle amongst that guitar, it is a song that is asking for fur suits of armour and/or the nations of the United Kingdom combining in a kind of Braveheart style fight against a shadowy opponent. For many listeners there will be some interesting themes to pick through this particular track.

The pinnacle of this particular  theme of national pride has to be attributed to track 7, “Beyond the Call”. A song for the NHS, doctors and nurses who stand “beyond the call” is a kind of celebratory prayer prepared with relatively delicate backing instruments whose rallying power culminates with the community voices added to the song from across the UK. Collected during the lockdown (a challenge to acquire and edit I am sure), it is a rather triumphant and powerful statement of support for our nationally funded health services and the workers therein. On point still at the time of writing (March 2021) it is a big thank you, and almost certainly the defining moment on this album for many. 

This lighter, supportive side of Merry Hell then turns into a kind of stylised classic sentimentalism at different points within the album which give it a wider appeal. Of course being a little sentimental does not make the subject of “Violet” a wallflower by any means,  but this “beautiful recluse” of a song is lined with clever small rhymes, and the track skips like a cheerful grasshopper moving from blade to blade, beat to beat. It is a song celebrating the outspoken, self-assured woman in a vaudeville turn you would expect instead to be about an eccentric gentleman with a penchant for colourful waistcoats, but is more the better for not being. As you listen through several gamboling and witty lyrics later, you feel like you’ve dropped off the suitcases to your room, arrived at the hotel pool bar with a cool mojito in hand and have the moment of peaceful bliss as you take in your surroundings. The yesteryear swagger and nostalgia combined with these combinations of words reveals another part of Merry Hell’s success; they know how to have a jolly laugh with themselves. 

Continuing on this theme we also get “Handsome Sally” and “Younger Than You Were”. We have to say, we are rather partial to these sweeter numbers on this album and are glad for their inclusion. “Handsome Sally” excels in that everything has been dialled back just a little bit. Slightly less flashy and big band,  slightly less bombastic it is the quiet, affecting advice from a lifelong friend to you in your time of need. The guitar leads with a sparser strum, a gentle violin and a drum hiding behind the curtain. It feels like the kind of song that would be shuffling around the top of the charts at Christmas time in the 90s, the familiar solidness of it all burns like a pleasing Boxing |Day turkey curry. Andrew Kettle draws on some fine inspiration beyond his singing in this track and it is a solid contender for track of the album. 

“Younger Than You Were” is more like the rhythmic, spark on a faster, more recognisable Merry Hell track but not any less touching for it.  Guaranteed to get people on the floor during a set, and possibly a place on a folkie’s wedding reception list or engagement party (is that a thing in normal times?) Sounding like a well-loved, well-considered couple who have known each other “since records began” it is celebratory, joyous and incredibly descriptive of the love that grows as the years go on. Many would say this in their relationship to Merry Hell’s music, and that is tricky to argue against.

So, all things considered, we get a strong mix of warmth both towards society and the individuals within from this sixth album by a modern staple of the folk scene. With an output that continues to “spark joy”, as they say, and the sense that there is a ton of ideas yet to come (in arguably “less creatively challenging times”) when the pandemic is a distant memory; we highly recommend the latest album by these rocksters. The whole package has been extremely well put together, sounding rich, deep and somehow (maybe alchemy) as if it was constructed in better circumstances outside of the pandemic. Like a swiss mechanical watch, these reliable, essential and high quality artists continue to shine and tick, providing a valuable, treasured service to many.

To buy the album, we recommend going direct to the artist on their shop here, though it is available in all good stockists.

No ownership of the images exhibited is implied. Please message and I will credit and label your work.

On the way to buying this album, also check out Merry Hell’s 1st January release “When We Meet Again”, another fine articulation of hope and reassurance for these difficult times, http://www.merryhell.co.uk/when-we-meet-again.html

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