On 2013’s ‘Stories Of Ruin’, a record that combined country, blues, soul, folk and trad, Wicklow band The Cujo Family conjured a substance-saturated existence fraught with violence, pain and spiritual abandonment. For all that, though, it was a raucously enjoyable and dryly humorous journey, delivered in the style they call Hardfolk. This time around it’s all that and more, with the band upping their game with some experimentation on the production side and highly original interludes into a standard song structure.
The folk elements still pervade, but where ‘Stories Of Ruin’ seemed preoccupied by dealings with a higher power, ‘Pigs In The Pen’ is more grounded in mortal matters. A touch of funk swagger infiltrates their latest incarnation from the off. Sporadic horn jabs punctuate opener Head On A Platter before it stretches out as it nears its final destination, the song relaxing into a measured coda of a type that rears its head more than once over the course of the record.
Where Home Again recalls David Gilmour’s guitar licks, Drop Out Kids is softer in theme and execution, a more pastoral Guy Clarke style outing (“She’s got eyes like mine/ She smiles all the time/She takes my fancy”). Things relax midway through the album with Let Your Feeling Grow, a mid-tempo ballad; still muscular, with the band’s musical might hauling it along. Mountain Songs is similarly constructed – another ballad, another swell of emotion carried on a deep timbre.
Thematically, there are parallels to ‘Stories Of Ruin’ – the soldier’s lament of that record’s Killing Song and that of the put-upon posse of the rumbling Death Ray (“In numbers in the light we will gather”); the murder ballad of Alozaina with Bray Head Hotel, both tales of death – one by bullet, the other by means unclear. This time it’s left to our own grisly imagination as our narrator recounts the events of “one twisted mornin’’” in the bridal suite of the titular hotel.
“I had a dream I was part a machine, part hurricane” claims the Vigilante at one point, a nod to Rory Gallagher’s Secret Agent creeping in at the last few bars. It’s a more rocking entity than the sauntering, pared-back yet no less bold experimental blues of Sophie (“I may be the baddest man there ever was”). The songs consistently display a confidence that is echoed in the band’s delivery.
Those higher powers inevitably crop up in the subject matter, as irreverently referenced as they always were (“Button up your shirt/ Children of the Earth/ He’s coming to turn you on”). Jesus Fever begins like a slice of Americana and gets more proggy as it progresses – this is territory that moves beyond anything on their previous albums, with a striding mid-section that sweeps away everything in its path. While retaining that folk foundation, ‘Pigs In The Pen’ is a giant step forward into the wider expanses of musical exploration for The Cujo Family. Hardfolk, it seems, is not bound by limitation.