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)
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)
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!
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.