It is not often that music on the radio stops me in my tracks. I remember it happening when I was seven or eight years old, with Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar”, and twenty years after that, with “’t Smidje” from Laïs, the debut album of the trio Laïs – three young women in their 20s from a village in the heathland north of Antwerp, who managed to record an album that sold over 50,000 copies, something previously unimaginable for Flemish folk music.
I’d gone into a newsagent’s to get something other than a newspaper – a bus ticket, or a parking disc, or mobile credit – at any rate, something that required interaction with the man behind the counter beyond the passing of coins and a muttered please and thank you. I’d gone two steps into the shop when the music stopped me in my tracks, and it was only when I became aware of the newsagent staring at me in mild concern that I realised how odd it must look. “Is this a CD or the radio?” I asked. “It’s the radio,” he said, somewhat cautiously. “You don’t happen to know what it is they’re playing?” I asked, thinking it a long shot. “That’s Laïs,” he said, in tones suggesting wonder at what cave I might have been living in. So I got him to write the name down, concluded my business, and went straight to the nearest music shop.
Part of the attraction was that this was the sort of folk rock sound I like so much (supplied to the three singers by a group called Kadril), accompanying songs in Dutch (or Flemish), a language that has had some horribly experimental folk renditions but otherwise has tended to stick to virtuoso or dirge-like authenticity. Not that the whole album is in Dutch – of the fourteen songs there is one each in English, French, Swedish and Piedmontese. The other part of the attraction is the beauty and enthusiasm of the three-voice close harmony, language to some extent being irrelevant to the sheer sound and energy.
The song above, released as a single (and hence the radio exposure) is the lament of a smith that his beautiful but irritable new bride is denying him the pleasures of just working his anvil and drinking with his friends. It has become a popular dance tune in Poland, where the lyrics must mean nothing. My favourite song on the album is probably the opening number, “De Wijn” (Wine), a paean to the comforting, pleasing and restorative properties of the drink, brought from far away (specifically the land of Cologne over the Rhine) to be enjoyed by friends here.
The a capella “’t Zoutvat” (The Salt Cellar) is a comic morality about a newly wedded man who tries to tell his bride how to organise her kitchen, and the shipwreck of their relationship in the ensuing struggle for supremacy. “De Wanhoop” (Despair) is a rejected lover’s weighing up of the monastery or the army as the best next step, finally settling on the latter.
A few of the songs are ballads with close cognates in the English folk tradition. “Isabelle” and “7 steken” (Seven Stab-wounds) are murder ballads, like “Lord Randall” (or “Lord Ronald”). The hauntingly sung “Bruidsnacht” (Wedding Night) is a story of a ghost lover, very like “She Moved Through the Fair”.
The album was recorded in a studio, but a concert performance can be found at this link.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.