The last time I saw the remarkable duo called TonksGreen – multi-instrumentalists Matt Tonks and Syd Green – perform I thought they sounded like five people. Their Heavy Yen project is five people, but now they sound like ten, sometimes twenty.

The addition of vocalist/guitarist Bridie O’Brien, vocalist/cellist Kate Adams and fretless bassist Richard ‘Bongo’ Davidson to the already cinematic TonksGreen sound has yielded an album – Heavy Yen – of widescreen, atmospheric rootsiness. By turns both wonderfully large and sweetly small – big and open, or intimately whispered – this great collection of songs was cooked up over four months in a country farmhouse near Bowral. The quintet of friends and collaborators wrote, arranged and recorded everything here, surrounded by trees, marsh and mist – and you can hear it.

Tonks and Green brought song ideas to this five-person kibbutz and they were developed organically by all concerned over time. Eight of the nine songs on Heavy Yen were written by Matt Tonks (with lyrics on the shimmering ‘Patterson’s Curse’ by Bridie O’Brien). And time seems to have been as much a musical ingredient as melody, rhythm and groove – the shortest tune is three-and-a-half minutes and the longest almost six, each song taking its own time to build, unfurl or circle back.

The only cover here is Peter Gabriel’s ‘Digging In The Dirt’ rearranged away from electro-throb of Gabriel’s original towards a more rolling, winding feel, wrapped in vines of fingerpicked guitar. The cello passages on ‘Digging In The Dirt’ have an astonishing effect, widening the music suddenly as if a window has been thrown open on a view of fields and clouds. The cello, across the whole album is by turns sighing string section, throbbing ostinato or stabbing jabs.

In fact, the collective uses every music-making thing at their disposal to great effect throughout – at their fingertips they have voices, lap steel, dobro, acoustic and electric/acoustic guitars, cello, ukelele, mandolin, bass, drums and percussion.

The massed voices that open and close the melancholy ‘Mary’s Bells’ are reminiscent of the ethereal Beach Boys’ most spiritual harmonies. The use of Bridie O’Brien’s highly distinctive voice, harmonising, singing passages, weaving in and out of Matt Tonks’ lead vocal filigrees the music like fine gold thread through rougher fabric.

Richard Davidson’s bass adds a jazzy suppleness here and there amongst the acoustic guitars and slapped brushes – his fretless opens the album at the beginning of ‘Till The Money Runs Out’. The driving bass of the harrowing ‘Candid’ – with its repeated refrain of ‘This time you’ve gone too far…’ –reminded me of Danny Thompson’s double bass with the UK folk-jazz group The Pentangle.

It is these touches that snatch this music away from the skeletal sea-hag grip of the folk-roots purists and give it back to all of us. TonksGreen have always been pretty much unclassifiable – melding celtic folk, flamenco, blues and rock’n’roll (even surf music) with an open-eyed awareness of today’s music as well as yesterday’s. With the additional talents that they have now fused with to create Heavy Yen they have stirred jazz, country and classical music flavours into the heavy, heady brew. The Heavy Yen album points the way to an exciting journey – a trip I can wholly recommend.

Heavy Yen is released  18th March and is available from the Mononest website –

Heavy Yen will be performing at the Blue Mountains Folk Festival on the 17th and 18th March and at Lewisham Livehouse 30th March.

Published February 2012 on

  1. bridie says:

    He writes well, this John Hardaker.

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