Three of the albums I’ve been listening to a lot recently are all beautiful sounds that have their roots in folk music. But the artists have evolved, taking different directions, but still capturing the soulful essence of our traditional music.
Beginning with “Mount The Air” by The Unthanks. Over recent years I’d heard various tracks by the band, but hadn’t explored further. The hook for me with this new album was the wonderful track, “Flutter”, which I highlighted in my last “Have You Heard” blog, praising the new music played on BBC 6 Music. It’s the most electronic and melodic piece on the album, combining subtle modern beats with singing that captures the essence of English folk music, with an authentic North-Western twang. (Listen to the pronunciation of flutter). It’s the middle of three tracks – the others being “Died For Love” and “Magpie”, which form, for me, the highlights of the album.
This album takes you back to the heart of English folk music. Or should I say English soul music? Updated to take in a bit of electronica, but also with a background drone in places that conjures up a feel of remote woodlands, mountain streams and mediaeval village festivals. Completely gorgeous – and daring. It starts with a ten minute slow-burning epic, the title track “Mount The Air”. This is not a band trying to entice you with an immediate pop hit.
Laura Marling’s “Short Movie” has a different kind of beauty. Its folk roots are there, but there are punchy rhythms; and a personalised, subdued anger, which suffuses the whole effort. Where there is assertion, it has a fragility, and so the music has a captivating sense of vulnerability and tenderness. I’m still discovering individual tracks – the album works for me as a whole. The subject matter can hark back to folky themes – the first track, “Warrior” has a narration from the point of view of a horse! Looking for one of those traditional princes to steer it on. No doubt a metaphor for love in the modern world. That song also identifies, for me, two of the influences on this album: Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. Very good influences, in my view!
And finally, “If I Was” by The Staves. Their second album, some time in the making. Produced by Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver. Played in full at the concert I reviewed here. That was a wonderful event, and now I wish I’d heard more of the album beforehand, even though it stood up on first listens. Everything that was good about the concert is borne out on the album. It’s a fuller, more varied sound than on their first album, “Dead & Born & Grown”, an album I absolutely love. There is a touch of Americana (“Teeth White” especially), some pop-rock (“Black & White”), but the roots remain – and the voices are as spectacular and beautiful as ever. I don’t think there is another band where I take as much delight just in the sound of the voices as The Staves. And the highlights – for me the centrepiece of the album – are the third and fourth tracks. First, the vocal symphony of “No Me, No You, No More”. Really, the singing, the harmonies, are quite extraordinary. Live they were unbelievably moving. And then that song segues – as it did live – into the lovely, tender, regretful lost love song, “Let Me Down”. Together, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. Really, give it a try.
I could go through all the songs. I love them all. “Blood I Bled” takes up the mantle from “Eagle Song” from the first album. Hints of prog, a chance to develop into psychedelic folk. For another time? And “Damn It All”, which starts like a lovely celtic soul piece, and then moves into a guitar-driven, kind of angry dirge. Picking up from “Pay Us No Mind” on the first album. Defiant, when love falters.
I’ve got tickets for the November tour, because The Staves’ music is something I never tire of. It’s just so beautiful, rich: steeped in English tradition, but so modern too. I suppose speaking mainly to women in their twenties and thirties, if you study the lyrics; but universal in its musical scope. English soul music, to be set alongside R&B and rap and whatever else. All parts of what we are about today.
Three fantastic albums: rooted in an historic tradition, alive to the present and looking to the future.
The Unthanks is a new ‘discovery’ for me, and a good one too. Thanks John!