At the end of our previous instalment, I mentioned that Uncut magazine had devoted one of their recent cover-mounted CDs to what they called, with clear reference to ‘The Old, Weird America’, Greil Marcus’s marvellous book on Bob Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’, the sounds of the New Weird Albion. It was really a compilation of English folk songs, about half of them traditional and possibly hundreds of years old, performed by contemporary acts, few, if any, of whom would previously have been even on the periphery of most of the readership’s listening, although Sam Lee was once, somewhat miraculously, shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and Elizabeth Fraser, who sings on the same track, was in the Cocteau Twins. But it’s that word “weird” that seems to do it and folk music now seems to be accepted as cool in wider circles than has often been the case. Marcus’s book originally came out under the far less seductive title of ‘Invisible Republic’, and recent-ish developments in the world of acoustic songs about magic, ritual and murder – folk songs, in other words, though something apparently essentially different from what became known as psych-folk or freak folk though it’s hard to keep up – have been marketed under the guise of “weirdlore” and even “weirdcore”.
I’ve never fully understood why this kind of thing is necessary. More than fifty years ago Bob Dylan, already vehemently and quite patently not a folk singer despite local record stores’ attempts to keep pigeonholing him as one for at least the next three or four decades, pointed out that traditional folk songs, which revolve around “vegetables and death” and are about “roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans”, would never die. It seems he was right, though he did also once define folk music as “a constitutional replay of mass production”. Mind you he might once have been right about that as well.
Anyway, this stuff has been near and dear to my musical heart for what seems like forever and I was particularly thrilled to see that Uncut had chosen a track by Cath & Phil Tyler for its compilation.
Cath & Phil Tyler – Some Heavy Hand
The Tylers are among my absolute, I’ll buy anything they put out, no questions asked, favourite folk music acts – actually you could probably leave out the words “folk music” and the statement would still be true – yet hardly anybody seems to know who they are. They’re from Newcastle upon Tyne though Cath, who plays fiddle, is American and used to be in the wonderful Cordelia’s Dad with the arguably even more wonderful Tim Eriksen. Husband Phil is a fine fingerstyle guitarist and old-time banjo player and their understated take on the more obscure parts of the folk tradition, replete with slightly harsh, even astringent melodies, unexpected, shape note-influenced harmonies, and minimal-to-stark arrangements, work every time. This album is a compilation of previously unreleased stuff from across their career that demonstrates, without a trace of doubt, that they’ve always been this good.
John Francis Flynn – I Would Not Live Always
Most of the Irish folk music I have loved in a post-Planxty world, which is now around half a century old, has had as its calling card, and perhaps its default position, superb and occasionally barely believable musicianship on the fiddle, whistle, pipes and so forth. More recently that appears to have changed with artists like Lankum, Lisa O’Neill and the scene’s resident American Cinder Well at the forefront of a generation that pays less direct attention to the feet and instead drills deeply and often darkly into the heart, mind and especially the soul. And now here’s John Francis Flynn with a sublime album that I found nearly impossible to remove from a variety of CD players for several months. The songs are simple and straightforward on the surface, with a little whistle-playing eccentricity for ballast, but I was especially and repeatedly floored by his slow, penetrating versions of the shanty-cum-slave song Shallow Brown and Come My Little Son, which Ewan MacColl wrote for his 1959 radio ballad, ‘Song Of A Road’, to the tune of the traditional Tramps And Hawkers that Bob Dylan used for I Pity The Poor Immigrant.
Devin Hoff – Voices From The Empty Moor
Norma and Lal Waterson, who knew a thing or two about singing folk songs, said that Anne Briggs was “without a doubt” the biggest influence on her generation of women singers, and since that generation would have included the likes of Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior, Linda Thompson and June Tabor, and “our Lal” herself, that was praise indeed. Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny wrote exquisite songs about her and the Decemberists named an album after her first EP. She taught the traditional Blackwaterside to Bert Jansch – Ralph McTell wrote a song about this – and Jansch’s entire guitar arrangement was lifted by Jimmy Page and stuck on the first Led Zeppelin album under a slightly different name and without proper credit. Last year Robert Plant and Alison Krauss released their version of Briggs’s Go Your Way on their ‘Raise The Roof’ album, and covered a Jansch composition as well. I can’t help wondering whether Plant had Black Mountain Side in mind when the song choices were made. But, fabulous as Briggs’s way with a song might have been … and it certainly was …the music business was quite categorically not for her. She hated the sound of her recorded voice and she gave it up in the early 1970s after releasing just two albums. A third followed 23 years after it had been recorded and there have been a couple of compilations of her early material along the way. Now American bassist Devin Hoff, who has collaborated with a range of artists from Joshua Redman and Marc Ribot to Julia Holter and Nels Cline, has arranged, with obvious love and respect, a set of songs written by or associated with Briggs for bass and voice and little else. Sharon van Etten gets Go Your Way and Holter covers the fabulous Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. It’s never quite Anne Briggs but it’s rather lovely anyway.
Alasdair Roberts & Völvur – The Old Fabled River // Sinikka Langeland – Wolf Rune
The significant areas of sonic overlap between the Scottish and Norwegian folk traditions are explored, by no means for the first time but highly successfully here by Roberts, whose sturdy melodic sense easily balances the high fragility of his voice and the gentleness of his accent, and his Norse collaborators whose Marthe Lea sings a couple of songs in her own language. Some of the material is traditional, some not, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference … which has been a particular strength in the Roberts catalogue. Sweet William’s Ghost stands out even in this enchanting company. And, speaking of enchanting Norwegians, I can highly recommend ‘Wolf Rune’, a sparse but striking solo record by Sinikka Langeland, a musicological academic who avoids any of the negative connotations that description might evoke, who plays the kantele, effectively a Finnish zither with a distinctively ringing tone, as she sings songs from Finnskogen, a forested area in south-eastern Norway where emigrating Finns settled centuries ago. Her singing, clear, plain and artifice-free, reminded me, strangely, of a slightly arch Sandy Denny although this is definitely not folk-rock. Nor, despite its home on the ECM label and previous leanings in that direction, is it jazz. But it does have that still, unhurried feel of so much of the label’s catalogue that a book on ECM was entitled ‘Horizons Touched’.
Jim Ghedi – In The Furrows Of Common Place
Some have recognised a kindred songwriting spirit between Roberts and Yorkshire’s Jim Ghedi, and a similar blurring of the lines between the traditional and the contemporary, and there is a fair amount of that, but Ghedi’s raw and powerful regionally accented singing appears to wear its heart more passionately on its sleeve on his outstanding ‘In The Furrows Of Common Place’ where Ghedi’s own songs are strong and often angry medicine but what appears to me to be the soul of the album is to be found in the three songs he didn’t write: Lamentations Of Round Oak Waters by Northamptonshire’s 19th century Peasant Poet John Clare, where trumpet and flugelhorn sing out from a seething, droning, violin and harmonium-fuelled sonic maelstrom; the a cappella miners’ choir of Ah Cud Hew, written by Ed Pickford of Durham whose mining songs have memorably been covered by Dick Gaughan; and the long, slow traditional ballad Son David, which could become a test of how well you and I can really get along musically.
Before leaving this subject, I should just mention ‘Deep England’ by electronic musician Gazelle Twin where she radically, at times disturbingly and often enough unforgettably reworks her 2018 album ‘Pastoral’ in the company of the NYX choir; and another album that combines a British singer with a Scandinavian band – in this case strident Newcastle singer Richard Dawson, who is apparently compulsorily referred to as eccentric, mainly because he is, with Finnish rock band Circle. However, ‘Henki’, which espouses a kind of naturalist prog-folk that is more conventionally melodic than long-time followers may have been used to, is considerably less eccentric than Dawson has been in the past and might therefore be just a little less interesting, and certainly less challenging. It is, nonetheless, an entirely worthwhile listen.
Guy Buttery, Mohd. Amjad Khan & Mudassir Khan – One Morning In Gurgaon
As superb a fingerstylist as he is, Guy Buttery has, for a long time, been so much more than a wood and wire gunslinger, so much more a musician than just a brilliant guitar player. His command of the sound, and sounds, of the acoustic instrument, the imagination he brings to his playing and what he does with it, and the care he takes to achieve a musicality that easily transcends mere technical proficiency, impressive though that may be, set him apart. Sure, he can drop jaws with the best but that never seems to be the point. All of this makes him a wonderful collaborator and this trio – guitar and mbira, tabla and sinuously emotive sarangi; African, Indian and elsewhere too; relatively unrehearsed and largely improvised – seems, in many ways, to have reached what Buttery’s albums have inevitably been working towards … a level of natural sensitivity to and respect for its various and culturally varied components that is both inspired and inspiring. As if this wasn’t enough Buttery also found the time last year to release – such an odd word in a virtual environment – two excellent live duets with outstanding fellow South African guitarists, ‘Live In Lisbon’ with his musical soul brother Nibs van der Spuy and ‘Live In Cape Town’ with the remarkable Derek Gripper, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable collection of odds and ends that he calls ‘The Farm Demos’.
Nathan Salsburg – Psalms
Another exceptional and, although fame is a relative concept in this somewhat niche musical universe – though that niche does seem to be surreptitiously flexing a few underused muscles – quite a lot more famous acoustic guitarist, Salsburg, whose day job is curating the Alan Lomax Archive, has reached back to memories of his Jewish upbringing for inspiration, setting a selection of Hebrew psalms to a fingerstyle-led set of songs on which he sings as well and receives assistance from his wife Joan Shelley (you should seek out her albums), Will Oldham, James Elkington and Jeff Tweedy’s drumming son Spencer. The album, contemplative, respectful and elegant and never too sombre or solemn, was a favourite round here for a long while. Other guitar albums that caught the ear during the year included jazzman Julian Lage’s Blue Note debut as a leader, ‘Squint’, where his trio impressed equally on rock, standards and a Twilight Surfer; the possibly unexpectedly straightforward solo ‘Forfolks’ by the eclectically prolific, ever-investigative Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker whom I once saw in trumpeter Dave Douglas’s group; and ‘Urban Driftwood’ by the splendid Yasmin Williams whose unusual tapping technique on often unusually-shaped guitars laid flat on her lap (and, no doubt, her female African Americanness, quite uncommon in this type of musical endeavour) are manna from heaven for the can-you-believe-this-30-second-clip social media crowd (you know the sort of thing … the next one you receive will be a thirty-piece group playing the theme from ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ on kazoos and spoons) but whose playing has a heft and whose compositions a rippling, shimmering beauty that made this album a keeper.
Joseph Spence – Encore
And then, while we’re talking about manna from heaven, there was Joseph Spence, a Bahamian guitarist and singer of a range of religious and folk songs and even a World War II hit by Vera Lynn, who was discovered at the age of almost fifty by folklorist Samuel Charters in 1958. I strongly suggest you try to find, and then read, Charters’ ‘The Day Is So Long And The Wages So Small: Music On A Summer Island’ about the writer’s song-finding trip to the Bahamas, and then seek out as much of Spence’s output as you can manage. He may conceivably have been the most influential fingerstyle guitarist you’ve never heard. Ry Cooder, who recorded several of Spence’s instrumentals on his own albums, called him the most syncopated man in the world and he can’t have been far wrong. He is often described as idiosyncratic and he certainly was, but that doesn’t begin to describe the effect of his grumbling, gravelly singing and the astonishing guitar playing in dropped D tuning that sometimes appears to be accompanying an entirely different song yet never loses sight of its principal job. ‘Encore’, which arrived 37 years after Spence’s death, consists of previously unheard recordings made privately in 1965. To at least a few of us its release by Smithsonian Folkways felt a bit like a miracle … stealing the title of one of his most memorable tunes, That Glad Reunion Day indeed.
Béla Fleck – My Bluegrass Heart
The great bluegrass musicians were always pretty hot stuff instrumentally, albeit within fairly tight stylistic lines, but there was a seismic shift in about the early to mid-1970s as a new generation, led by the likes of David Grisman and his band members, started to write and play more complex tunes that incorporated elements of jazz, classical, Eastern European folk music and more. Terms like Dawg music (after Grisman’s nickname), newgrass, spacegrass, swingrass and plain old new acoustic music were employed to describe what was going on and Fleck’s breathtaking banjo skills and willingness to keep breaking boundaries fitted right in. Fleck has, across his career, ventured as far from home plate as most and has, they say, been Grammy-nominated in more different categories than anybody else. Every so often, as this double album’s title attests, he returns to bluegrass. The various line-ups he has assembled to assist him in some of the most staggering ensemble playing you’ll find anywhere sound like an impossible inter-generational fantasy band featuring, at various times and in different combinations, an older guard of Grisman, Trischka, Douglas, Bush, Duncan and Meyer through Thile, Sutton, Pikelny and the amazing blind fiddler Michael Cleveland to younger wizards Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings, with nobody competing for space yet everybody pushing everybody else just that little bit further. The tunes are good too.
Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita
Who knew, when he was channelling Ol’ Waylon, or even Elvis at American Studios, that Sturgill actually wanted to be Jimmy Martin, the cussin’, feudin’, persistently grouchy old goat who also happened to be one of the greatest bluegrass singers ever, if not quite the King of Bluegrass, the accolade by which he preferred to be known? During lockdown Simpson released two volumes under the title of ‘Cuttin’ Grass’, where he reimagined his own previously recorded material in the company of a group of ace bluegrass musicians that showed he could do high lonesome as well as he did lonesome, ornery and mean. Then, less than half an hour long, written and recorded in a week with those bluegrass players slightly augmented, but stylistically closer to acoustic country, came ‘The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita’, a splendidly written and performed American Civil War tale, a musical horse opera in the tradition of Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’. It’s probably appropriate, therefore, that Willie also puts in an appearance. And so, gratifyingly, the bluegrass net is widened.
Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers – Ramble In Music City
From about 1990, Emmylou Harris played live for a while with a gang of bluegrassers calling themselves the Nash Ramblers. Harris had previously demonstrated, on her ‘Roses In The Snow’ album in particular, that she was a natural in the style, and the Ramblers, who included the great Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, former Burritos steelie Al Perkins and bass player Roy Huskey Jr, for and about whom Steve Earle would write Pilgrim, were a fine band. ‘At The Ryman’ was released on album and video (on which she clogged with Bill Monroe) and Emmylou went off to do something completely different and altogether fantastic with producer Daniel Lanois. ‘Ramble In Music City’ is a recently discovered live recording from the Nash Ramblers era. The sound is not quite perfect but the unexpected availability of this marvellous concert makes that excusable … and there are no songs repeated from ‘At The Ryman’.
The dB’s – I Thought You Wanted To Know: 1978-1981
Rock also threw up a few unexpected historical recordings in 2021. In my head at least and without thinking too hard about it, the dB’s were the American indie guitar band link between Big Star and early R.E.M. Their first two albums, influential if underheard, have been early ’80s favourites for decades. As founder member Chris Stamey pointed out in his terrific, ‘A Spy In The House Of Loud’, “the old guard had become bloated, cartoonish, and widely co-opted by a search for maximum corporate profits, and we wanted none of it.” Sharing premises with New York Rocker magazine gave them rehearsal space and a small amount of cultish publicity. The earliest recordings on this set date from that time, the latest from the year of their debut, ‘Stands For Decibels’. Stamey’s cohort Peter Holsapple, who would become the “fifth R.E.M.” for a while, eventually founded the much missed Continental Drifters, a loose aggregation he formed with his wife Susan Cowsill who had been, as a member of her family’s late ’60s hit group, the youngest artist to feature on a US top ten single. She might still hold the record. Stamey would go on to collaborate with Yo La Tengo and produce Whiskeytown and Alejandro Escovedo. But enough history; just go out and listen to the band.
Can – Live In Stuttgart 1975
It’s pushing it a bit to suggest that another Can live album is unexpected, given the fact that the great and hugely significant, even pivotal, German innovators recorded themselves relentlessly. What is most exciting about the double Live In Stuttgart 1975, an entirely improvised 90-minute concert over five long tracks, is how instinctively, almost uncannily, the group members respond to each other, so that even while the ideas are coming as thick and fast as they do, there’s hardly a wasted note. Virtually the exact opposite of a guitarist and a keyboardist playing solos over a four-on-the-floor rhythm section, this is anything but a jam in the sense that most rock musicians perceive jamming.
The Cherry Faced Lurchers – The Otherwhite Album
What was an unexpected release was the Lurchers’ second album, on vinyl, a mere 34 years after it was recorded and originally only available, more or less, if you were lucky, on cassette. I still go to bat for Shot Down In The Streets, from the group’s first album, ‘Live At Jamesons’, the loose and ragged but very accurate document of a strange time and environment, as my favourite South African rock song ever. ‘The Otherwhite Album’ was different. Properly studio-recorded, with James Phillips’s rapidly developing compositional and arranging skills starting to grab hold without taking any of the edge off the politically piercing cynicism that fuelled much of his lyrical observation back then, this was slated to be the great SA rock album. It wasn’t, and, its time having passed, still isn’t, but, rediscovered and remixed during lockdown, it’s a fine record and a crucial addition to the local archive that, critically, fills a gap in a really important South African musical story.
Black Country, New Road – For The First Time // black midi – Cavalcade
These two acts, out of a broadly south London-based cluster of post-post-punk musicians, are among the most interesting new English rock bands I’ve heard for a while as they eschew, despite reasonable chops, the riffing, chording and epic soloing that classic rock so thrives on. Black Country, New Road’s debut created enough of a stir to have made the upper reaches of the UK album charts (though who knows how that works now that nobody buys music anymore) and to have been nominated for the Mercury Prize (though, as I pointed out earlier, so, once, was Sam Lee and he’s an experimental folk singer). Notwithstanding all of that, it seems to be quite an achievement for an album replete with post-punk saxophonic skronk, complicated rhythms, ranting vocals and even … klezmer. One of their songs goes, “I told you I loved you in front of black midi”, thereby nailing the link between the two bands for all time. ‘Cavalcade’ is the second album by black midi whose trick is to manage the often-faint line between prog- and math-rock where the distinction may lie in energy levels which, in the case of black midi’s complex and near-chaotic aggression, are considerable. The vocal croon on Marlene Dietrich and elsewhere sounds oddly like that latter-career arch-experimentalist Scott Walker and Walker is namechecked in one of the Black Country songs, which seemed another reason for talking about these albums together.
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore // The Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust
Of course, there were also several American bands I like a lot that made good records as usual – the phrase “some of the music” in the name of this series is deliberate, so I haven’t mentioned, for example, the fact that the ludicrously prolific and perfectly wonderful Guided By Voices made another two albums in 2021, to go with the three they made the year before and the three they made the year before that, all without any noticeable drop in quality, or that the not remotely as prolific but still impressively so John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats by another name) released yet another excellent album full of cool song titles, my favourites this time being The Slow Parts On Death Metal Albums and Arguing With The Ghost Of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review. But surely everybody knows by now what The War On Drugs are going to sound like and nearly everybody likes them so there’s not much to say except that I’m impressed at how Adam Granduciel is able to keep being interesting from what seems to be a fairly confined set of musical templates, one of which appears to be Dire Straits; how wide open the band’s music sounds despite such confinement; and how they managed to reference the great German band Harmonia in a title as well as in the motorik rhythm. The differently Dylanesque Felice Brothers made yet another album that friends whose musical taste I trust and respect declared their best ever but that, as usual, I found a trifle frustrating … unsatisfying rather than unsatisfactory because what they do is so obviously really good at an objective level and I like so much of it. But what I like is scattered around their catalogue rather than found on a couple of great albums. This time the eight-minute We Shall Live Again was surely one of the songs of the year, but I still like particular solo albums by Felice brothers Simone and Ian more than albums by the Felice Brothers.