For someone who grew up around both traditional folk music and the dreamscaping post punk machinations of the 80’s, Parabola West is the logical and latest point on a musical journey through the sweet spots of my record collection. It links back to the likes of Kate Bush and Bat For Lashes and also rubs shoulders with a whole host of indie musicians fusing roots music with more pop accessible sounds and just as many dyed in the wool folkies working out ways of keeping their genre relevant, fresh and perhaps even lucrative.
It’s reassuring to find Arthur Rivers exactly where I left him last time, kicking off the album with the previously encountered single You’re the Ocean Waves, You’re the Sea. And although this gentle and wonderfully wonky folk creation gives you a hint at the soft textures and delicate treatments that make up the rest of the album, this is more a vague signpost rather than a road map. It would, of course, be perfectly lovely to follow such pre-designated folk paths pretty much knowing where you are going but instead the album wanders any number of rootsy routes and world music byways. As a famous man once said, it is better to travel well than to arrive and Beyond Sunsets and Rainbows is definitely about the journey. Armed with a vague sense of direction and a sense of musical adventure you head off wide eyed into his music.
Lead You Home takes us past cosmic country bars, You & Me is haunted with the mournful sound of gothic Mariachi, We Remain The Same wanders the bayou’s and backwaters of the Deep South to blend a gospel spiritual with a work gang chant and Heal Your Pain is a suitable soothing infectious pop-folk song. One of the most telling lines on the album is when Arthur sings “Let’s start a fire” and where many would follow that up with some rabble rousing rhetoric, he merely suggests that the “Dance around it remembering the past.” This is an album of intimate reflection, soul-searching and personal nostalgia something that comes as a welcome change of pace in a world where big seems to be regarded as better.
The clever pay off here is that many people mixing up folk, country, sweeping string sections, banjos and the like often produce some sort of nu-country or dream state folk music, something that seems to lose its rigidity and sense of direction, but not Arthur Rivers. For all the soft edges to the music, its gentle textures and subtle musical weaves it is inherent with melody and memorability. The basic structures are rigid and accessible, it is just that he is so adept at knowing just what needs to go into the song to make it work that you end up with a set of songs that do everything they need with the minimum of fuss.
Rather than resort to studio tricks, over-playing, solo’s and similar showboating, instead the lyrics remain the focal point offering emotion, remembrance, love and connection, and rather than merely trying to get feet tapping along is designed to to do nothing less than get the very soul dancing.
Stick the label “twisted neo-folk’ on something and I’m in. It already ticks three important elements for me. Folk music, or at least that music which beats at the heart of your particular cultural traditions, is where music begins. Someone much older and wiser than me quite rightly pointed out that “all music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” Well, quite. Neo, because even the most tried and tested of genres have to move on. Twisted because, well, expectations are there to be dodged. And in this case that box is ticked or not depending on your view of what twisted is, not that it really matters.
For what Young Waters have created here is an album of songs very much rooted in traditional sounds, sounds that are deft and delicate, spacious and emotive, harmonious and intricate but which manages to update those traditions whilst using the very same building blocks. Arrangements follow unexpected twists (there you go) and turns, the lyrics are often deep and exploratory and the whole affair feels less reverential, less tied to the sounds of the past but more like a new chapter written in the same sonic handwriting.
Twisted might imply a mad overhaul of the folk sound, strange gene-splicing in night time music laboratories and wild genre-hopping. But the twists are more supple and subtle than that and act to steer things through interesting waters rather than let things run wild. The result is a charming blend of familiar sounds used to new ends, of soft and gentle string washes, of a creeping darkness filling the space between crisp and clear acoustica, of exquisite harmonies, of the family silver getting buffed up for a new batch of visitors. Twisted? Perhaps not so much. Gorgeous, well-crafted, dexterous and awe-inspiring? Absolutely!
Coming very much from the acoustic folk tradition, Are You Okay? blends the hallmarks of two of the genres biggest successes. There is something in the song’s minimalist beat and of course the gentle harmonica washes, that reminds us of a smoother and more delicate take on His Bobness…The Zimmerman… that’s Mr Dylan to you. Also the deft touches and the space in the song tips its hat to Simon and Garfunkel’s balladic brilliance. It skirts through the vicinity of a number of other reference points, such as Ryan Adams iconic debut, Heartbreaker, but remains more of an urban, underground coffee shop sound rather than that of a rural, country approach, or perhaps the bridge between the two worlds.
There is something compelling in its delivery, an inherent anticipation caused by the minimal content, there is a power in the way that the words have space to hang and fade, the way that the music washes away between the beat and the clever change of pace in the middle eight.
There is a lot to like here. Mark Schirmacher may be working with age old musical materials, there is after all little new under the sun, but he still manages to put his songs together in a way that offers new and interesting prospects and potential. We have all heard music like this before, yet you have never heard music quite like this before. Now that’s clever.
As someone who grew up on a mixture of tradition and progressive folk sounds, as well as a host of other musical genres from the challenging to the commercial, I’m so glad to see that a whole wave of artists are again pushing the genre to explore its potential. You Are Wolf is one of the most fascinating of these new kids on the rootsy block.
Seeped in gorgeous vocals and just as often happy to stick to traditional rules as subvert them, Keld is a masterpiece of folk for the future. Taking the theme of water (keld being an old northern English word for the “deep, still smooth part of a river) Kerry Andrew collected a mixture of folk songs with female heroes centred on water spirits, drowning boys and powerful witches. This she blended with original tales inspired by her love of wold swimming and of vengeful rivers, nymphs and naiads. At times it feels like the sonic representation of Roger Deakin’s classic book Waterlog, and if you don’t get that reference, believe me when I say that reading it with this album gently playing in the background is a perfect pairing.
Where her debut Hawk To The Hunting Gone was built heavily on vocals and loop manipulations to form its core sound, this second offering is painted from a wider ranging sonic palette, marrying old school folk with its modern counterpart, adding delicate and deft instrumentation as a frame for the vocals which are still the beating heart of the overall sound.
As I have said before, folk, like any genre needs to move forward, to evolve if it wants to stay relevant and Keld is certainly the sound of gentle evolution, a clever intertwining of the familiar and the fanciful, the exploratory and the timeless. Change is inevitable, but it is rarely this beautiful.