Review Summary: One of traditional folk's leading lights in the 21st century, with another great collection of songs.
So who cares about folk music? I'm not talking about Mumford and Sons, or Fleet Foxes, or even Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. I mean REAL folk music, the traditional stuff. The stuff you imagine bearded Irishmen dancing around to in dingy bars with wooden ceilings, with songs telling strange stories about tortured sailors and tyrannical kings. This is all exaggerated, but I feel the need to review some trad. folk here on Sputnik as even Fleet Foxes and those sorts of sub-folk bands are under-represented.
The 'folk explosion' of the last 5 or 6 years represents an 'indie-fying' of traditional folk music, taking folk's most popular, catchy elements such as banjos and narrative lyrics, and essentially transplanting them into the stomping, guitar and drum-driven rock setting of the 21st Century. Don't get me wrong - I love a bit of Fleet Foxes. But I can't help that the 'folk' label that's so often placed on these bands and artists just doesn't make sense. Sure, they are 'folky' in the way just mentioned, but that is it. Let's face it, they are indie bands at heart, which incorporate disparate folk influences.
The music of Martin Simpson, a folk singer and songwriter from the north of England, truly deserves to be termed 'folk music' in the fullest sense of the world. The choice to review him here isn't a random on - it's because he represents the pinnacle of modern British folk music whilst incorporating many other influences from the US, such as country and blues. Added to the fact that he is widely regarded as one of the most technically brilliant acoustic guitarists around at the moment, and has won numerous awards for his playing and songwriting, its a little surprising that he's not more widely known. Perhaps it's because he has hit the mainstream relatively late in his career - despite releasing a string of albums in the 70s and 80s, it's only his last few, beginning with 'The Bramble Briar', that have started to be mentioned in the music press.
When folk music is done best (and I'm not even distinguishing between US, English, Irish, etc folk here), the standout songs are not the jigs and reels, but the yearning, beautiful ballads. Emotion and poignancy can somehow be conveyed more directly in a folk song than in a rock song and I still don't really know why - perhaps it is the specificity of the lyrics, which almost always tell a story about a definite time or place. Rarely in rock do you get this sort of lyric without sounding a bit forced - but in folk, it works. On 'True Stories', Simpson's second-latest release, these ballads, stories and memories of his travels in Britain and America come together to create something so mesmerising, you wonder whether this man is from another age. It's eclectic, with 'An Englishman Abroad' switching between boisterous boogie and sweet folk lament, about the highs and lows of the life of a socially misunderstood old man Simpson met while living in the US. 'Sir Patrick Spens', a reworking of a traditional folk song covered by Fairport Convention in the 70s, tells the tragic story of a sailor doomed to his death at sea. And perhaps the most impressive song on the album is 'Home Again', an original about how, having travelled far and wide, Simpson is most at home amongst the old steel mills of Sheffield, his home town in Yorkshire (UK). It is a homage to how the nostalgia of home draws you back, even though in your life you may discover other superficially more exciting places.
Simpson's ability to combine great lyrics, exciting new arrangements, husky evocative vocals, and rip-snortingly skilful guitar playing into one record is, as ever, astonishing. There is no doubt about his guitar skill, as a single listen to 'Swooping Molly', a lightning-fast instrumental ode to his young daughter, will reveal. And his hauntingly beautiful slide-guitar playing on 'Greystones' is a triumph - so simple, yet so effective.
So much could be said about each song here, as each is rich in lyrical and musical content. However, 'True Stories' doesn't even stand out in terms of quality from Simpson's back catalogue, though it is more diverse in musical influence. This is because he is a remarkably consistent artist - on every one of his well-produced records you'll find beautiful slow numbers and technically brilliant folk dances. And what you're reading isn't a fan besotted by the music - it is the undeniable result when folk music is done by an expert musician and songwriter, well versed in the musical traditions that came before him. If you're not initially put off by the perhaps unfamiliar style, indulge in it, and you'll reap the musical rewards.
Stand-out tracks: 'Look Up, Look Down', 'Home Again', 'One Day.'