British folk music update

Last month, I asked for recommendations of modern British folk singers, because I find that so much of what I listen to (Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell) is American.  [And, yes, I know that Joni is Canadian; the point is, that’s not British, and I am.]

I wanted those recommendations in part because I am starting out as a minor-league folk singer myself, and I’d like to find more songs to sing that are a better match for my own situation in life, rather than — for example — songs about long-distance truckers driving through the night in the American mid-west.

I got a fair few recommendations — thanks to all of you who offered ideas.  I picked out a fair few of the recommended artists and obtained an album by each.  A few people have expressed an interest in knowing how I got on with the recommendations, so now that I have listened to each album at least twice, I thought it might be interesting to report back.  To be clear, I am not reviewing these albums, just giving my personal responses.  Something may be brilliant and I might still not like it.

Dan Mangan — Nice, Nice, Very Nice (2009)

(Recommended by canspice)

The title is apposite: at the very least, this is pleasant to listen to, which is important: it buys an album time to grow.  I like the cleanness of the sound, with very pronounced vocals and distinct guitars, particularly apparent on The Indie Queens Are Waiting.  And the idiosyncratic feel of some of the songs wins points, with Robots immediately appealing and Tina’s Glorious Comeback standing out both for its unusual approach and the delightful brittleness of the sound.

That said, the album has not particularly gripped me yet.  It may take a while for the actual meanings of the songs to permeate — I am a very slow listener, and many of my very favourite albums didn’t do much for me the first few times I heard them.  Anyway, NNVN has earned the right to be listened to in more detail.  It’s definitely the kind of thing I am looking for: most of the songs feel like they’d work well shorn of their full-band arrangement.

Richard Thompson — Shoot Out the Lights (1982)

(Recommended by Jim Blake, NickS, and Gavin Burrows) though various albums were mentioned so I just picked the one that seems to be widely regarded as his best.)

I think I made a mistake.  This isn’t really a folk album by any stretch of the imagination, sounding instead rather like Bruce Springsteen.  It doesn’t do much for me, and can only assume that Thompson has produced some very different music from this at some point.

Corb Lund — Five Dollar Bill (2002)

(Recommended by NickS)

I went for this, even though it shades more towards country than folk, mostly on the basis of NickS’s excellent review.  By excellent, I don’t just mean favourable, but well-written and informative.  Unfortunately, the actual music is not yet making as much of an impression on me as NickS’s recommendation did.  It’s evident from what he wrote that much of value of Corb Lund is in the lyrics, and I’ll evidently have to listen more closely before I start to reap the rewards.

But the Country strike against it is a fairly serious one.  That musical palette just seems to limited compared with that of other musical forms.  Life can’t be all I-IV-V, you know.

Verdict: don’t know.

Johnny Flynn — A Larum (2008)

(Recommended by Ben Weinstein-Raun and Conor Grogan)

Whatever this is, it’s not folk.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it’s not what I was looking for.  But the fact that I wasn’t looking for it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not glad to have found it.

All of that might seem like rather a roundabout way to praise an album, and I guess it is.  This is going to have to be filed as another “don’t know yet”, which may suggest simply that I shouldn’t try to form opinions of music on listening to it just twice.

What I can say is that Tickle Me Pink is fascinatingly idiosyncratic: that rarest of beasts, a truly unique song.  Oddly enough, I’ve run into it a few times before listening to A Larum, once on a compilation CD that an old friend put together and once when a band at my son’s school performed it at the school’s Band Night.  Since that’s by far the song that I’ve heard the most from this album and also the one that I like most, I can legitimately hope that more of them might grow on me similarly as I continue to listen.

Side-note: the (presumably deliberate) “lo-fi” production on this album really bugs me.  Come on, folks.  Do the job right.

Gillian Welch — Time (The Revelator) (2001)

(Recommended by Gavin Burrows)

Another one that I gave time to because of an insightful and erudite review, this one by Gavin Burrows.  And again, the actual music, when I heard it, felt like a letdown after the high praises it had received.  This really is country, much more so than Corb Lund, and that’s a sound that I just can’t get excited about.  So I don’t think I will be pursuing this one.

I’ll keep it around on my hard-drive, though, and let my pick-a-random-MP3 program select songs from it when it wants to.  You never know: it might grow on me in that way.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first album to have done that.

Fionn Regan — The End of History (2006)

(Recommended by Roee)

This is more like it — hands down my favourite of the recommended albums that I’ve listened to so far.  The clean textures, the confident yet withdrawn vocal, the effortless guitar mastery, and the oblique songwriting all combine to make this just the kind of thing I’ve been looking for.

The lead-off track, Be Good Or Be Gone, may be the standout: it’s certainly the one that’s embedded itself most firmly in my hindbrain.  I’ve found myself singing snatches of it as I wander around the house, and I’ve started the slow and painful process of learning to play the guitar part.  If I ever master it, it’ll definitely go into my little set.

Lots more good stuff on the album, too.  Definitely a winner.

Fairport Convention — Liege and Lief (1969)

(Recommended by Ranting Nerd)

I got this at the beginning of the year, and I’ve listened to it eight times, which is long enough even for me to figure out whether I like it.  It’s a qualified yes; I do, but too much of what’s to like about it is the whole-band textures.  If you strip the songs right back to just the tune and a guitar accompaniment, there is not much to them.  They can get very repetitive, too.

Possible exception: the song Crazy Man Michael might just work.

But, but …  Wikipedia says that “in an audience vote at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2006, the album was voted Most Influential Folk Album of All Time.”  I don’t get it.  It’s pleasant, but why the big fuss?  What am I missing?

Steeleye Span — Below the Salt (1972)

(Recommended by Ranting Nerd)

Ugh, no thanks.

Special bonus artist: Chloe Hall — Spring Hill (2011)

(Not recommended by anyone)

Actually, I will write about this separately.  Stay tuned!

Also Ran

Mumford and Sons (recommended by KG): I listened to one of their songs on YouTube — it might have been Little Lion Man — and it didn’t really do much for me, so I moved on.  Hmm.  On listening to it again, I wonder whether it merits a second look.

Dido (recommended by Jim Blake): I already know and very much like Dido’s music, but I wouldn’t consider it “folk” at all, in the sense that I could stand up with a guitar and sing it and expect to be able to reproduce anything remotely resembling the original.

Martin Simpson (recommended by Andrew Rilstone): I already had A Cut Above which is a June Tabor/Martin Simpson collaboration.  I’ve only listened to it a couple of times, but it’s at least pleasant and maybe promising.  Further bulletins as events warrant.

Did Not Run

Lots of other recommendations, for one reason or another, I haven’t listened to.  These include (in the order they were mentioned): Stan Kelly, Mark Knopfler, Rachel Unthank, Alistair Roberts, Ben Reynolds, Peter Greenwood, Nerdfolk, Seth Lakeman, Chris Wood, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, Phil King, Ruarri Joseph, Alisdair Roberts, Tom Paxton, Dave Goulder, Archie Fisher, Sylvia Herold, Cindy Kallet, Teddy Thompson, Bert Jansch, Rosanne Cash, Jenny McCormick, Sharon Lewis, Rose Polenzani, Frank Turner, Pete Coe, Emily Barker, Laura Marling, Nat Johnson, David Francey, Ralph McTell and Kate Rusby.  Now that I have compiled that list, I see that it’s shockingly long.  I’ll probably return to some or all of these in due time.

Again, many thanks to everyone who’s recommended one or more of these artists.  This exercise has obviously given me a lot to think about.  If anyone want to chip in with further comments on these artists, especially in light of the preferences I expressed above, I’ll be happy to see them.

26 responses to “British folk music update

  1. Oh, well, if the intention was to find songs that you could more personally relate to:

    They Might Be Giants’ “I am a Paleontologist”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ8rblUtEXA
    Jonathan Coulton’s “Code Monkey”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s8S7QxpjeY

    :)

  2. Though in Code Monkey, since you’re English, you’d of course have to replace “Fritos” with “crumpets” and “Tab and Mountain Dew” with “tea and vindaloo”.

  3. I recommended Dan Mangan partly because he started out playing guitar on the streets of Vancouver, so I thought his music would lend itself to solo guitar work. I’m glad to see he made the cut, or at least, got a listen. :-)

  4. Have you listened to the Bad Shepherds?

    Its punk rock played in a folk style on folk instruments. It shouldn’t work on any level but it does. I’ve seen them in concert and they are amazing live.

  5. The Wikipedia entry is good for the ‘why’ Liege and Lief has the reputation it does – it’s the point where Fairport ditched American influences and covers (Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, etc) in favour of working wholly in the British folk tradition – almost all the material on Liege and Lief being centuries old. (Ironically, given your comments, historically largely sung unacompanied – although in much shorter form).

    But I’d agree – that makes it an important historical document, but not neccesarily a great album if you just hear it without any context.

    I was never immediately hit by Fairport in the same way that I was by The Pentangle, Davy Graham, Shirley Collins and Davy Graham, Anne Briggs, Nick Drake, or John Martyn. Perhaps precisely because they were the most conventionally ‘rock’ act??

  6. You missed out on the Unthanks, the first truly original english folk outfit in a long time…

  7. Sorry to hear my suggestions didn’t match your tastes! De gustibus non disputandem est and all that.

  8. “A Cut Above” is Martin Simpson lending his (very good) guitar to June Tabor’s (very good) singing; but its mostly (very good) traddy songs, which I think wasn’t what you were looking for? I had in mind Martin Simpson’s most recent album’s, Prodigal Son and True Stories — in particular the “Never Any Good” (http://youtu.be/zwqbi7mlYOg) and “One Day” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiCua5rftCs) which are two of the best original “folk” songs since, well, ever. Although, come to think of it, they may be too personal to the singer to be suitable for you to sing at a folk club…

  9. I didn’t get around to commenting on the first post, so it’s great to get another chance…
    I strongly second the recommendation of Archie Fisher; in particular, The Man With A Rhyme for some extremely trad-sounding modern compositions. His live Canadian tour album “Off the Map” with Garnet Rogers is also tasty.
    If you’re willing to check out some other Canadians who might fit your bill, James Keelaghan (I’d suggest starting with My Skies) and Stephen Fearing (So Many Miles, and not just because I was at the live session, and The Assassin’s Apprentice). Bruce Cockburn has almost too much to sample; the two-disc edition of Waiting for a Miracle is a good summary. Connie Kaldor is an old favourite; she has quite a few tracks on her web site.

  10. This is pretty much completely off-topic, but you do realise, don’t you, that the photo you used to illustrate “songs about long-distance truckers driving through the night in the American mid-west” is actually an Australian truck (well, a truck in Australia, anyway)? :-)

    BTW, congratulation on the 1,000,000 hits!

  11. Rupert Stubbs

    Kate Rusby has a distinctive, charming voice, and both revives old English folk songs and does her own. I would start with the Awkward Annie album – almost every song is wonderful. She also did a cover of The Kinks “Village Green Appreciation Society” which is well worth a listen!

  12. Rupert: I’ve not heard a lot of Kate Rusby, so I might be talking complete arse here, but I am not drawn to her singing because it seems to me that she has in common with Frank Sinatra, Enya, Aretha Franklin and everyone who’s ever sung on X Factor that she is all about the sound of her own voice.

    That can be valid musical approach — I love some of Aretha’s songs, and Sinatra’s renditions of swing classics are unparalleled — but in the folk idiom, which to my mind is all about the song, it’s a distraction. Whether it’s actually true or not, I get the impression that singers like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Richard Shindell aren’t making a big aural statement — they are singing only to convey the song. And paradoxically that very unconcern lends their performances a refreshing directness and honesty.

    That’s how I read it, anyway. I may be doing Kate Rusby a disservice.

    Scott: no, I didn’t realise the truck was in Australia! I just Googled for “kenworth truck”, in honour of one of Shindell’s other songs. What it was doing Down Under, I couldn’t say.

  13. Yes, of course Aretha is all about the sound of her voice — I didn’t realise there was any question of dispute about that. A song like Angel has almost nothing intrinsic to recommend it, but her voice transforms it into one of the most gorgeous noises ever made by humans.

    As for Richard Thompson sounding like Bruce Springsteen — remember I am only talking about the one album I’ve heard (Shoot Out the Lights). And I am here to tell you that Man in Need and Wall of Death would both sit very comfortably on Born to Run. But like I said, my guess is that I just picked the wrong Richard Thompson album. Thanks for the alternative suggestions; I’ll check them out.

    I don’t see what Folk and Country have in common, really, beyond a tendency to use acoustic instruments. The aural palette is completely different.

    Finally: I’ve never even heard of anti-folk. I listened to the Jeffrey Lewis video you linked and found it Mostly Harmless. I can’t imagine wanting to go back and hear it repeatedly, as it doesn’t go anywhere. There just isn’t enough to it to engage me.

  14. Aretha Franklin about the sound of her voice? Fairport Convention a conventional rock act?? Richard Thompson like… Bruce Springsteen??? Cough, splutter!

    (Gillian Welch is definitely folkcountry, admittedly enough. Though saying you like folk but not country is to me like saying you like British but not American punk.)

    If you want the more stripped back, acoustic Thompson there’s a couple of tracks on ‘Mirror Blue’. ‘Beeswing’ is popular enough for Thompson’s own website to be named after it, but my personal favourite is ‘King of Bohemia.’ Or maybe ‘Withered and Died’ from ‘I Want To See the Bright Lights’, a typically cheery little ditty.

    Incidentally, where you you stand on anti-folk stuff like Jeffrey Lewis? (Wondering partly just cause I saw him play last night.)

  15. The link between folk and country?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachia#Music
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_music#Early_history

    Of course, things have changed a lot over a century – there’s not much connection between them now.

    (Also, the whole singer-and-a-guitar thing looks like an American ‘country’ innovation)

  16. Well you certainly notice Aretha’s voice, she’s a great singer! But to my mind when she’s singing it definitely is all about the song. (Even on ‘Angel’!) By your reference to ‘X-Factor’ I was assuming you held her responsible for all that accursed microtonal warbling, where singers go up and down the scales just because they can. Those singers may feel influenced by Aretha, but I can’t think of a single occasion where she does anything remotely like that. It’s like saying Oasis are influenced by the Beatles. Well yes they are, but that doesn’t tar the Beatles with anything.

    I have to admit I’ve never actually heard ’Shoot Out the Lights.’ It is a Thompson album people cite, but for arbitrary reasons I’ve just never got round to it. I don’t like the bombast in Springsteen, on the rare occasions when he does softer numbers I find it much more bearable. But to my mind Thompson can “get rocky” without all of that. (Though each to their own, of course.)

    Country’s actually very influenced by British (admittedly not just English) folk. Of course there’s lots of other stuff in the stew as well. But surely it’s at least part of the folk tradition. (Not accusing you of this, but English folk purists have a tendency to compare the best of English folk to the most manufactured Country. When people like Hank Williams can’t just be written out they tend to conveniently forget it’s Country, like book snobs insisting ’1984’ can’t be science fiction.)

    That Jeffery Lewis number is a grower, honest. Partly it’s the novelty of hearing a Crass track with a tune put to it, but it’s more than that…

  17. PS ‘King Of Bohemia’ A href=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNxvpJUPct0>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNxvpJUPct0

  18. I wholly agree that the X-Factor warblers don’t Get It. But I don’t think tyou can deny that the specific It that they don’t get is a style pioneered by Aretha and others like her. The thing is, her voice was just ten times better than the next best in that style. When the raw sound of your voice is that good, you can invent your own style and no-one can complain.

    If you still believe that Angel is fundamentally good song, rather than a vehicle for an awesome voice, I invite you to consider a bloke with a guitar singing it at a folk club. Ugh.

    (And, no, of course I didn’t for a moment mean that the X-Factor competitors’ Bad Aretha impressions in any way degrade the original. The idea that Oasis were ever “the new Beatles” always struck me as too ludicrous to be worth bothering to contradict.)

  19. ”If you still believe that Angel is fundamentally good song, rather than a vehicle for an awesome voice, I invite you to consider a bloke with a guitar singing it at a folk club.”

    Think we might be at slight cross-purposes here! I’m not particularly defending ’Angel’ as a song, though Aretha sang some worse stuff in her time. (Commenting on a latter-day number, John Peel once said “Aretha could make any old rubbish sound great, and in fact she just has.”)

    What I’m saying is… I reckon when Aretha sings a song she’s thinking about portraying the song, not just showing off her voice. It’s like the difference between a good actor, like Gielgud or Richardson, and a hammy, show-off actor like Olivier. The good actor isn’t interested in showing you how good an actor he is, he figures you both already know that.

    I probably do like singers who are more about demonstrating the voice, such as Janis Joplin, but as exceptions to the rule…

    ”The idea that Oasis were ever “the new Beatles” always struck me as too ludicrous to be worth bothering to contradict.)”

    Okay, bringing Oasis up when talking about music may be some corollary to Godwin’s Law.

  20. Gavin and I approach agreement, with this:

    I reckon when Aretha sings a song she’s thinking about portraying the song, not just showing off her voice. It’s like the difference between a good actor, like Gielgud or Richardson, and a hammy, show-off actor like Olivier. The good actor isn’t interested in showing you how good an actor he is, he figures you both already know that.

    Yes. That is certainly true of Aretha (less so of Sinatra, I think).

  21. Oh don’t say that we agree! I was hoping for a punch-up. (Only kidding…)

    Sinatra is to me a good example of ‘ham-singing’, using the song as an excuse to flex the biceps in your voice. Maybe my tolerance for all that stretches no further than Joplin…

    (By the way, did notice I’d made a silly typo in an earlier comment. Of course I meant “Gillian Welch is definitely country”, as subsequent comments hopefully made clear. And you must all be used by now to me getting things worng…)

  22. I have mixed feelings about Sinatra. There’s no question that his voice just is fabulous, and his versions of (for example) I’ve Got You Under My Skin and The Girl From Ipanema define those songs for me. (Fabulous songs they both are, too.) But I do agree that he had a bad tendency to get very self-conscious about his own voice, seen to perhaps worse effect in the carols he sings on the otherwise marvelous Sinatra Christmas album. His approach is just fine of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”; for “Hail the Heaven-born prince of peace”, not so much.

  23. My own feelings decidedly un-mixed!

    (Still, no time for this, the good Doctor’s return is imminent…)

  24. Thanks for the follow-up, thanks for the kind words, and I have a couple of belated thoughts.

    1) Of the couple of albums that I got, based on the old thread, A Larum was my favorite. I was surprised to see you complain about the production because I’m normally someone who will complain about that, but I thought the sound of the album was great. In fact I don’t feel like I’ve really paid attention to most of the lyrics yet (I am also a slow listener), but I really like the performances.
    Listening to it again, I still don’t see see much to complain about in the production. The back-up vocals are sometimes muddy, but the instruments sound clear and good (side note: AMG identifies the band as the Sussex Wit, and I think they deserve credit for contributing a lot to the album).

    2) I have to say, I also have never liked Shoot Out The Lights as much as I would have hoped given it’s reputation. I just find the songs hard to get into. I believe that there is real emotion behind them, but many of the songs feel so tightly controlled that I feel distanced from them. For what it’s worth, the people that I know who love that album tend to praise Richard Thompson’s guitar playing as masterful without being flashy or intrusive. Listening to “Just The Motion’ again I can see why people would say that.

    3) Completely trivial note, the song title “Be Good Or Be Gone” distracts me because I am reminded of the movie The Tao Of Steve in which the main character has three rules for picking up women the second two of which are summarized, at one point, as “Be Excellent in her presence” and “Be gone.”

    4) Feel free to set the Corb Lund aside, if it doesn’t grab you. I’ll note that it didn’t particularly impress me the first time I listened to it. I I just noticed, at some point, that it was album I kept listening to and then I started to think about what it was that made it so good. I think it’s an album which is more notable for being strong from beginning to end than for having particular songs that stand out as being brilliant. One thing that I would say is that, while some songs are stronger than others, none of them feel lazy. Basically every song feels crafted and like an honest effort. Consider, for example, “Time To Switch To Whiskey” which is a bit of a light-weight crowd pleasing song, but I still find myself appreciating the verse (“I’ve been splittin 8’s and hittin my straights, in the card rooms of the world / Chasin’ skirt and gettin’ hurt, but now I gotta card playin’ girl, / Man she gets excited when the deal don’t come out right, “). Perhaps that’s interesting just because I know from other soungs that Corb Lund is a serious card player, but it feels like an honest verse. I don’t feel like the words are chosen just to make a rhyme work, or to play out an image or metaphor. I am fully willing to believe that being a musician and a poker player is not a good combination for maintaining relationships, and that Corb Lund is writing from experience in that verse. That isn’t to praise “authenticity” for it’s own sake, but as an example of the fact that the songs hold up to attention — that the details feel thought about rather than tossed off.

    But, again, that isn’t to try to talk you into listening to it. Particularly if you’re listening to a bunch of new music listen to what grabs your attention and you can come back to other albums later.

    Finally, I know you’re not looking for more recommendations, but one more album that you might like is Time by Michael Smith. I’ve tried to restrain myself from recommending too many American singer/songwriters because that isn’t what you asked for. That album has a number of very American references, but I still think it’s worth recommending; it has some absolutely gorgeous songs on it.

  25. 1) Of the couple of albums that I got, based on the old thread, A Larum was my favorite. I was surprised to see you complain about the production because I’m normally someone who will complain about that, but I thought the sound of the album was great. In fact I don’t feel like I’ve really paid attention to most of the lyrics yet (I am also a slow listener), but I really like the performances.

    Really? The sound is just muddy. Listen to the very start of the album (The Box). The jangly guitar intro sounds murky and grainy, as though it was recorded at too high a level and distorted, or encoded as a 64kbit/s MP3 and decoded.

    I have to say, I also have never liked Shoot Out The Lights as much as I would have hoped given it’s reputation. I just find the songs hard to get into.

    I just have to assume it was the wrong Richard Thompson album. It’s as if I know someone who’d love early Genesis albums like Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound, but they got Invisible Touch instead. I’m not saying it’s bad; just that it’s not what I was looking for.

    Every [Corb Lund] song feels crafted and like an honest effort. Consider, for example, “Time To Switch To Whiskey” which is a bit of a light-weight crowd pleasing song, but I still find myself appreciating the verse (“I’ve been splittin 8′s and hittin my straights, in the card rooms of the world / Chasin’ skirt and gettin’ hurt, but now I gotta card playin’ girl, / Man she gets excited when the deal don’t come out right, “). Perhaps that’s interesting just because I know from other soungs that Corb Lund is a serious card player, but it feels like an honest verse. I don’t feel like the words are chosen just to make a rhyme work, or to play out an image or metaphor.

    Yeah, I do admire that — the sheer craftsmanship of making a song do the work. (The opposite to that is some of Dylan’s lyrics, which say transparently dumb things like “I ordered some suzette, I said ‘Could you please make that crepe'” for no better reason than that he just said “cape” and can’t be bothered to think of a proper rhyme.)

  26. Really? The sound is just muddy. Listen to the very start of the album (The Box). The jangly guitar intro sounds murky and grainy, as though it was recorded at too high a level and distorted, or encoded as a 64kbit/s MP3 and decoded.

    Just listened to that again, and I agree with you. The guitar and vocals sound distorted (though the cello sounds fine), and the vocals on the second track also sound a bit harsh.

    I now have to agree with you as well that it seems like a frustrating bit of poor attention to detail, because I do think there are ways in which the album sounds quite good.

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