Review Summary: The debut solo album from Irish folk revivalist, John Francis Flynn, is a triumphant exploration of traditional culture and heritage in a respectfully modern lens.
John Francis Flynn is the Irish multi-instrumentalist of Dublin trad group Skipper’s Alley and this is his debut album; produced by Villagers’ Brendan Jenkinson. The album explores traditional folk tunes and poetry through Flynn’s interpretational lens, boasting skewing synths, fiddle and jangling electric guitars that may call to mind the same efforts led by artists such as Sam Amidon. The works selected and Flynn’s choice musical translations make for an immersive listen, and one where history, culture and traditional material can be understood by a respectful and contemporary artist.
The album opens with ‘Lovely Joan’, a traditional English folk tune that opens here with bleating synth keys before Flynn’s acoustic guitar picks into motion; flanked left by a humming and enduring synth. When Flynn begins to sing, his voice drones in a gravelly and lingering baritone in timbres that call to mind vocalists like Ronnie Drew or Pecker Dunne. It’s immediately evocative and nostalgic in its brooding brawn and melancholic, romantically scorned frame.
“She didn't think herself quite safe,
No, not till she came to her true love's gate.
She's robbed him of his horse and ring,
And left him to rage in the meadows green.”
Flynn bemoans over tweeting tin whistles, panning electric guitars and a tight but distant drum kit. It’s a testament to Jenkinson’s mix here that each element has a significant effect on the composition’s progression. For example, when Ross Chaney on drums around 1:50, it compliments the ongoing drama while lifting it with tapping symbols and a snare hit delicately enough to lend its loose fitted rhythms without conflicting Ultan O’Brien’s fiddle. It’s a balanced mix through-and-through that respects the role each instrument plays in the composition.
Balance is key here as not only are the songs wonderfully composed but light and shade is found in Flynn’s approach to exploring these songs. Banging a single acoustic guitar chord like a percussive instrument, ‘My Son Tim’ is a foot-tapping shanty that lifts the spirits after the bluesy ballad ‘Cannily, Canilly’. It’s exactly the sort of firelit belly the anti-war song needs to capture the humour of the song’s flippant but scathing critique of the Napoleon war. It demonstrates Flynn’s diversity as a vocalist. He portrays the character perfectly here, lifting his baritone to meet the giddy rhythm of the woozy and boozy belter with massive success.
The lightened spirits follow into a whimsical tin whistle polka, and much to the dismay of those suffering with misophonia, every breath is held in its place and punctuated in the mix, not uncommon for solo whistle recordings. It’s a very intimate recording as a result but it’s not the only approach to instrumental tracks that Flynn and co take. The second of the two instrumental, ‘Chaney’s Tape Dream’ is warped tape recording of a tin whistle that has an almost ethereal and ghostly figure embellishing its airy bleats. It’s a gorgeous stop-gap before the record's cornerstone trifecta of ‘Bring Me Home’ begins.
Broken into three parts, the first section is a sombre ballad written by Paddy Quilligan. A settled traveller, Quilligan pens a beautiful ode to his homeland of Kerry that Flynn captures perfectly with care over every word. There’s quite a difference in the culture of Flynn’s Dublin city upbringing and that of the traveller community but there’s a commonality found in the appreciation of place, the landscape, the people and culture, and all of the ways these combinations can be distinct. That is axiomatic; something with which we can all relate. It seems fitting that a contemporary folk album can see that even in the cosmopolitan Dublin city, there is an underlying and singular finger-print to any location that can be loved, remixed, and loved again. It is North Kerry which Quilligan wrote about and which Flynn is singing but it’s one we can all empathize with. Wherever there is a place, wherever there are people and wherever there is art, there will be a unique form from which it can be expressed.
‘Bring Me Home’ is a trifecta which explores three backgrounds within Flynn’s singular lens and I think that’s a testament to the enduring and ever expanding influence a culture can have. Part ii (‘I Would Not Live Always’) takes us to the works of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Lomax documented field recordings of early folk songs including the works of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly. The amount of history captured and recorded by Lomax is paramount. Works including the creole music of Louisiana and yes, Irish trad music, which became part of his mission in the 1950’s, where some of the earliest LPs of Irish trad were made. Flynn’s composition considers one Clarence Ferrill, an American fiddle player who’s hymn is interpreted by Flynn into a dashingly current folk rock tune. Cymbals crash like thunder, warbling reverberated voices echo like the wails of spirits and synths dole arpeggios in increasingly frantic warbles. It’s a passage that lays bare the mechanisms of culture’s ever expanding roots, how culture transforms and finds a new home.
Be it the samba influences of early jazz music or the synthesized inflections of a folk revivalist, I Would Not Live Always finds that while the body of an individual might die, the impression which they leave behind certainly live on to be loved and interpreted again. In John Francis Flynn, folk music has a superb new ambassador on this striking solo debut. Proud of his age and respectful of his predecessors, Flynn channels the past from place-to-place for it to be explored anew.