“Portraits” – Ben Bedford

4 stars (out of 5)

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2020 might be the worst year in the modern era for live music, but we’ve had some cracking albums released, particularly over the last few weeks. Ben Bedford’s “Portraits” is no exception; it’s a collection of twelve powerful songs spanning folk, country, tex-mex and rock styles that will pull your emotions in every direction before coming to a resolution with the album’s final song, “Goodbye Jack”, a rousing tribute to the hard-living author Jack London. Ben Bedford’s a storyteller with a great grasp of narrative and a knack of pulling out historical themes with contemporary relevance.

The songs on “Portraits” aren’t new, although they haven’t been released in Europe; the selection has been curated from Ben’s first three albums “Lincoln’s Man”, “Land of the Shadows” and “What We Lost”, spanning the period 2007 to 2012. The quality of the songs and the common narrative themes create an album that feels like the songs were all written specifically for this project. It works perfectly.

The album’s opening song, “Lincoln’s Man” is pretty representative of the album. It’s a strong narrative; the story of a man from the Confederacy who fought for the Union side in the American Civil War. It’s a long story, clocking in at over eight minutes, dealing with the universal themes of loyalty, family and conscience and contains echoes of the divisions visible in the USA today. The backing is stripped back to mainly acoustic guitar, banjo and occasional cymbal, which focusses the attention on the story and the wider context of the military detail; imagine the writing of Gordon Lightfoot and the delivery of Harry Chapin. This isn’t the only song exploring the military experience on the album; “Twenty One”, with its string band arrangement and harmonium, tells the story of an enlisted farmhand who can only see the destruction that is the inevitable consequence of the war.

Another couple of songs immediately suggest historical parallels and the way in which we refuse to learn lessons. “Migrant Mother” powerfully evokes Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” set during the Great Depression and reminds us that economic migration at the low end of the wage scale is not a novelty, while the gently finger-picked “Land of the Shadows” retells the story of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till for offending a white woman in a Mississippi store. His killers were acquitted; any of this sound familiar? These songs were written in 2007 and 2009 respectively but have an eerie resonance in 2020.

If this is beginning to sound a bit morbid and gloomy, let me point you in the direction of “Amelia”, a soaring celebration of the determination and courage needed to undertake Amelia Earhart’s triumphant 1928 transatlantic flight. The rapid acoustic finger-picking conveys the sense of motion as the plane slices through the air and the uplifting chorus highlights the achievement against the sexism which is still with us.

Ben Bedford comes from a long line of troubadours in the folk tradition, exploring eternal themes through old stories and new stories, and creating moving and thought-provoking songs linking the present with the past. This curated selection of songs from around ten years ago feels more relevant than ever in 2020.

“Portraits” is released in the UK on Cavalier Recordings (CR 255626) on Friday September 4th.