Vice of the People
"It's had a new handle, and perhaps a new head, but it's still the old original axe." I don't know if anyone really thought that the name, access to the back catalogue and the presence Blair Dunlop ("I grew up in quite a folkie atmosphere") made these six young people the continuation of the legendary Albion band by other means. I heard them with a tiny audience in a tiny Bristol pub, and very good they were too, but possibly not being treated as Folk Royalty by the good people of Bristol. However, when they have produced material of this originality and quality — with an authentic folk-rock sound that's both slightly old fashioned and very contemporary -- their relationship to the original band is really neither here nor there. There are at least three stand out original tracks. Thieves Songs is a bitter political nursery rhyme; driven by lyrics and a beat. Wake a Little Wiser is explicitly a modern spin on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a structure that wandered in from the Black Joke?), which has the sense not to outstay its welcome. The remarkable How Many Miles To Babylon is another riff on a nursery rhyme, which turns out to be a ghost story -- why has no-one else tried to do a "night visiting" about a modern war? Blair Dunlop's voice is fresh and modern; Gavin Davenport is richer and older and folkier. On stage, the highlights are the rocked up morris instrumentals; on the CD, maybe the best thing is the fine traditional Adieu to Old England Adieu. But the album stands very successfully on its own two feet as a not-at-all-laboured conceptual argument about fame and wealth and what's going on in the land of Albion right now.
Is "enigmatic" the right word for this album? I didn't write about it when it first came out because, although I liked it I didn't think I'd understood it. As I've listened to it more I've enjoyed it more and more. And possibly understood it less and less.
Lazy critics always use expressions like "bad boy of folk" to describe Jim Moray, which might have been true if he hadn't done anything since 2004, but he has and it isn't. (The Independent talks about his "bleeps and beats" approach to folk, which is plain patronizing.) I do have a sense that since Low Culture (2009) he's done the pyrotechnics and mash-ups just about as well as that kind of thing can be done, and is now moving into a middle-period where he wants to be taken more seriously as a folk singer.
Skulk's actually not that traditional an album. "Hind Ettin" is one of those Tam Lin type stories about a lady who wanders off into a fairy wood and find that time has gone all wibbly; it starts off in full-on traddy mode -- voice, guitar, bit of fiddle, lady named Margaret who spends her time sewing silken seams -- but before long there are drums, reverbs, instrumental breaks, a total folk rock re-envisaging of the song. Very fine it is too. I sometimes say of performers like Martin Carthy and Jon Boden that they are primarily story tellers; Jim is primarily a music-maker. I found some of the ballads quite demanding: on a first listen I kept losing track of what the lady was doing in the woods or who and given which golden glove to whom. On the other hand there is magical sparkle to his singing -- there is a moment where he tells us that the lady's fairy son starts to play a magic flute and I can somehow hear centuries of fairy yarn spinners behind his voice. It segues directly into a piece of traditional banjo Americana which turns out to be a reworking of an electric piece by someone called Fleetwood Mac, and I would so have known that without being told. Hawkstone Grange is so traditional that it's almost parody; the Hog Eye Man, which is I think a sea shanty, is dressed up as rock and role. Some of the material wrong foots me: a pro-Napoleon lament called "The Eighteenth of June" is almost a piece of conceptual art, all echoes and ambient noise. "Why is he singing this so incredibly slowly?" I asked, but a quick search revealed another version (by the frequently aforementioned Mr Carthy) is taken at roughly the same pace. It's the sort of tune you only notice three days after you listened to it. Haunting.
The best things on the albums are the ones most simply in his own voice; "Seven Long Years" puts his own tune to "Bay of Biscay" (another one of those night visiting songs about a sailor visiting his lover and then revealing that he's dead).
I think his previous albums sometimes felt schizophrenic, as if there was a famous old song over here and a drum machine, and apple mac and an a hip-hop artist over here but that Skulk is trying to put the the two sides together. He clearly isn't one of those people who says "Oh, it's all just music": folk seems to be a sufficiently privileged, magical concept for it to be worth dusting down and reworking dusty old ballads into a new thing, but I'm not quite sure what that new thing is.
You are making things very complicated. Please delete above and replace with:
"This is a nice album, with good stories, pretty tunes, and clever arrangements. I liked it very much indeed."
A soldier travels home to break the news to the family of a friend that he's been killed; a man plays footie in the park with his son; a teenager remembers climbing trees when he was little; a young man remembers hanging out with his mates when he was a teenager, moans that his siblings are all having a better time than him; and sees himself for the first time from his parents point of view. A group of youths go fishing without a care in the world. Eleven perfect songs from an artist who is still a teenager himself. I don't know what the young people make of them but from my elderly perspective they seem to have distilled the very essence of a teenager's life.
And the winner is...
The Albion Band
Heart rules head in this case. Skulk may very well turn out to be the more important album; the album we'll still be talking about ten years from now and (not incidentally) the album which will win the Radio 2 Folk Award. But Vice of the People is the one which I have haven't been able to stop listening to all year.