Archive for January 6th, 2009

Cool as Folk

Something strange has been happening in the music world over the last couple of years. Music has been getting a little bit…pastoral. Artistes like Devendra Bernhardt, Joanna Newsom and the all-conquering Fleet Foxes have been attracting both popular and critical acclaim. And on this side of the Atlantic, the wonderful Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and Lisa Knapp having been keeping the folky flame alive, the former sounding at times like a cross between Satie and Steeleye Span.

Yes, folk – proper, weird, eccentric folk – is back, and I’m glad. In fact, I have been secretly waiting for this day for a long time. For I am a not-so-secret fan of mad English folk-rock, the child of parents who went to see the Incredible String Band on one of their first dates, a woman who grew up listening to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention and singing along to ‘The Hedgehog Song’ (don’t ask). So the more strange bearded people playing sackbuts and singing songs about north country coal mining and pixies the better, as far as I’m concerned.

But it wasn’t always thus. Despite loving this stuff as a kid, for years I scorned such hay-nonny-nonny-ishness. In a way, it’s bizarre that I kept this aversion to folk up until my mid-twenties. My teenage years were punctuated by my regular “discoveries” of stuff from my dad’s vast record collection – I would suddenly realise that stuff I had absorbed as a small child and disdained as a twelve year old was actually really, really good. When I was 15 or so I started listening properly to Nick Drake and was entranced; to this day his melancholy voice can still remind me of lying out on the grass in the back garden on a blissfully sunny June afternoon studying for my Inter. This went on for years – I would suddenly find, say, a Francoise Hardy album with a cool cover, put it on and fall in love.

But while I eagerly rediscovered and then devoured everyone from the Byrds to Tim Buckley to Neil Young, I had no interest in stealing my dad’s Fairport and June Tabor albums. American folk rock was one thing, but the demented English stuff about press gangs and hedgehogs and painting boxes and geordies that reminded me of being 7? Not so much. The only English folkies I loved were Nick Drake and Al Stewart, whose fey bedsit balladeering provided the soundtrack to my early college years (Al Stewart produced terrible AOR muck from the ’70s in, but his late ’60s stuff is fantastic, in a twee way). But in general, the English lot weren’t cool enough for me. Especially as they tended to sing actual folk songs. Which were a little too close to….trad. Which was definitely too much for me.

And then, in the early ’00s, a few years after I left college, my now husband Mr Costigan and I were visiting a dear friend in Cornwall who is really into English folk. I was looking through her record collection and getting all nostalgic at the sight of the soundtrack to my infancy, and as the night went on and the wine flowed, the two of us ended up singing ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ by Fairport Convention and I realised that I still loved the music of my childhood after all.

I haven’t looked back since. These days I have quite the library of English folk-rock and have long realised I need to delve into the cooler corners of Irish trad. Those old traditional English songs and are incredibly satisfying to sing, and there’s a wild earthiness about them that really appeals to me. And even the more magicky original compositions by those bands are strangely convincing. I think this is why I don’t have any time for a lot of the American folky stuff like Joanna Newsom – it seems very self-conscious and affected, like the more unbearable Incredible String Band stuff. Whereas Rachel Unthank and her sisters sound like they’re having a sort of avant-garde sing-song (who is playing in Dublin in February – hurrah!). The English folkie ladies can be all wafty, but they can sound gloriously tough too – witness the awesome Maddy Prior and June Tabor collaboration Silly Sisters, in which they sang a surprisingly frank old ditty about living with a sexually inadequate partner…

And although I arrogantly thought I knew it all, that world can still surprise me. I’d never heard Vashti Bunyan until that night in Cornwall. And until my dad bought their re-released albums a few years ago, I had never (consciously) heard of Trees, although I must have heard them in the background as a kid as my dad apparently had both of their albums at some stage. Now I love them. Alas I can’t find my favourite Trees songs online, but these two are pretty great (despite the awful visuals that accompany all of these songs on Youtube):

Trees: Road

Trees: Nothing Special

And for those in the mood for something a bit jazzier (God help us all), it’s Pentangle. Seriously, this song is fucking amazing, like a sort of folk Stereolab. You’ll probably know it when you hear it.

But you can’t beat good old oft-mocked Steeleye Span. They’re deadly. And this gorgeous song is why. Fleet Foxes, eat your heart out…

Ahhhhh, lovely.

I couldn’t live on an all-folk diet. There are times when I need something harder, some angular indie rock or an epic wall of noise. Sometimes I need to dance around to Northern Soul or hip hop or electropop. Sometimes I just need to, as that folk Judas Dylan growled, “play fucking loud”. But sometimes only the exhilarating, strangely soothing pastoral oddness of English folk-rock will do. And then, as the Span would say “I don’t give a single pin, me boys, for what the world thinks of me”.

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