One of a select few traditional British folk artists to cross over to the mainstream, chisel-featured banjo, fiddle, and tenor guitar player Seth Lakeman became the genre's poster boy following his Mercury Music Prize nomination for second album Kitty Jay back in 2004. Since then he's risked alienating his initial captive audience with a series of records, each of which has distanced him further from his humble shoestring-budget beginnings. Following the James Blunt-esque AOR leanings on 2006's commercial breakthrough Freedom Fields, and the polished rock sound displayed on 2008's Top Ten hit Poor Man's Heaven, his fifth studio album, Hearts & Minds, is unlikely to silence the naysayers who believe he's abandoned his roots. Indeed, while his early output often evoked the vintage sea shanties of Ewan MacColl and Celtic sounds of Martin Carthy, these 11 self-penned tracks, produced by Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Tom Waits), have much more in common with the increasingly popular nu-folk of contemporary acts like Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale. The lo-fi "See Them Dance" is a hypnotic blend of garage rock rhythms, an infectious singalong chorus, and a Jimi Hendrix-style psychedelic violin solo; "Stepping Over You" is a melancholic acoustic pop ballad featuring Bellowhead's Benji Kirkpatrick on banjo duties; and "Hard Working Man" is a rabble-rousing anthem that recalls the socially conscious anti-folk of Billy Bragg. Only the brooding minimal closing track, "The Circle Grows," and the plucked pizzicato string-led "Changes" showcase his previous trademark stripped-back timeless sound. The tales of West Country folklore and mystical legends that characterized his early career have also been eschewed in favor of lyrics centering on both autobiographical themes such as long-lost love (the Levellers-esque "Tiny World") and relevant modern-day issues like the financial crisis (the thumping prog rock-inspired title track). Hearts & Minds therefore may be a more personal affair, while his impressive multi-instrumental abilities and passionate delivery are still here in abundance, but overall, it lacks both the rawness and originality of his earlier work that helped him to stand out in the congested singer/songwriter crowd.
AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien