Bassoon – you don't get many of those in bands these days. Moulettes are nothing if not the exception to this and many other rules – swashbuckling genre raiders armed with cello, double bass, violin, autoharp, harmonium, glockenspiel and more besides.
Riding the same alt-folk wave that has brought many other contemporary acoustic artists to the fore over the last half of the 2000s, Moulettes however stubbornly refuse to fit into even the most vaguely defined classification – perhaps the closest might be one of the choices of genre available to those with that venerable relic, the MySpace page: "melodramatic popular song".
Multi-instrumentalists and singers Hannah Miller and Ruth Skipper front the band, alongside violinist Georgina Leach (absent tonight), Oliver Austin on various forms of percussion, guitar and voice, and Jim Mortimore's double bass. As might be guessed from such a diverse set of instruments, this ain't no three-piece garage rock band. Their sound is thick with three, four and five-part vocal harmonies, layers of played and plucked strings, guitars and that oleaginous, glissando bassoon. Songwriter Miller draws upon a wealth of influences: the folky prog-rock of the likes of Pentangle, the tones and intervals of Medieval early music, gypsy, klezmer, and the story-telling and dark humour of the folk tradition – even if musically they fall well outside what folk traditionalists could stomach.
And my god, can they play. At some point, classically trained players of orchestral instruments must ask themselves where they might direct their talents outside the classical realm. The quality of musicianship here is tremendous (most of the band have been borrowed by the likes of Seasick Steve, Mumford and Sons, The Unthanks, The Holloways), with the tightest timing and clever composition weaving together ideas and rhythms, reinforced by the leading ladies' powerful voices and, especially in Skipper's case, theatrical tendencies.
Handclapping, finger-snapping and Skipper's formidable beetle-crusher boots are all used as precision instruments, particularly on 'Unlock The Doors', and 'Sing Unto Me'. 'Requiem' showcases a more proggy style with clever rhythm changes, but without ever becoming disjointed. 'Bloodshed In The Woodshed' and 'Cannibal Song' see them at their most darkly humorous, the former listing all the potential means of reckoning a jilted lover intends to deliver upon her man (“Trip wire/small fire/bathing with a hair dryer”), the latter a pre-dinner discussion with the narrator's unfortunate soon-to-be ex-lover (“Oh, oh my lover/No longer will you love another”).
Hugely talented, imaginative composers and wildly enthusiastic performers, even during the slower numbers or when the occasional prog excess causes longer songs to drag, Moulettes are a real treat to watch and hear, and it would be a hard heart indeed that wouldn't be moved to smiles and a bit of a jig. With a piratical swagger they carry off centuries-worth of musical booty and, like the sailboat that traverses their eponymous debut album's cover, sail off into the rarely-traversed but delightful seas of Baroque-prog-folk-chamber-pop.
Words and photos by Michael Parker