Advantages It's trad, Dad!
Disadvantages It's rum, Mum
|Quality and consistency of tracks|
|Cover / Inlay Design and Content|
|Value for Money|
|How does it compare to the artist's other releases||Not applicable|
|How does it rate alongside the competition||Outstanding|
If you thought traditional folk songs were the preserve of men in hand-knitted beards with their finger in their ear, here's an album to shatter your preconceptions. It's the first release from a 22-year old graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoire who grew up in a family of morris-dancing folkies but who likes listening to rock and avant-garde electronica.Plenty of musicians have combined folky songs with contemporary beats and textures. None has gone as far as Jim Moray. He took nine traditional English songs and re-made them for the twenty-first century, complete with samples and electronic beats. Surprisingly, the results are often brilliant.
The CD opens conventionally enough with a solo violin, over which Moray's light, pure voice sings the well-known words of Early One Morning. One reviewer on Amazon pointed out that he sounds like Michael Crawford doing Frank Spencer. This is an impression that, once planted in your mind, is hard to dispel. You half-expect to hear: "Early one morning, just as the sun was rising / The cat did a whoopsie in my beret downstairs". But it's worth putting that aside and, once the violin is supplemented by a thunderous breakbeat and sampled voices, you become absorbed by the atmosphere that he weaves.Some of the other songs gave me more problems. Like Lord Bateman: the tale of an English nobleman who gets banged up in Turkey. He is sprung from jail by a young princess to whom he promises marriage if they ever meet again. When she turns up years later to find him married, he ditches his wife in her favour.
Moray's theory is that songs like these are the ultimate collaboration: honed and refined for hundreds of years and therefore better than any he could write. An alternative view is that they have become mere clichés, of little relevance to modern listeners.Call me shallow, but the doings of fair ladies, wealthy squires and raggle-taggle gypsies don't do a lot for me. This sort of subject-matter was no doubt riveting in the age in which it originated. But what relevance have tales of noble lords wooing fair maidens in the more complex world of 2004? In a way, I'd rather such songs were played only by traditional instruments and kept as period pieces for those trying to recapture an imaginary bucolic idyll. Let's face it, gypsies today are not going to be 'raggle-taggle'. They're more likely to be living in a lay-by, driving Transit vans and offering to tarmac your drive.
I think such traditional narrative songs will always sound out of place in modern settings unless they're done very sympathetically. But the real question is not what musical wrapping they come in, but whether they speak to us, whatever age we hear them in. Thankfully, several of Moray's choices - those with more timeless subject matter - do just that, and achieve his aim of liberating them from the inward-looking, protective world of traditional folk music.For instance, April Morning's warning about the inconstancy of young men rings as true now as it must have 500 years ago, even if it is pitched against a backing of real drum kit, violin and angelic female backing vocals. Similarly gorgeous is The Week Before Easter, a tragic tale of lost love sung a capella with backing track consisting solely of Jim's multi-tracked vocals. His voice here has a touching vulnerability, and the setting is just right.
Sandwiched between these songs is The Seeds of Love, the album's most successful track. The lyrics are symbolic and allusive; their imagery - growth and the seasons - is perennial, so they sit far better with hip-hop beats, rippling synthesisers and treated voices. When combined with a string arrangement, the song moves effortlessly between euphoria and brooding menace. On this and the song Two Sisters, the whole rises above considerations of genre and becomes a thing of pure beauty.For the final track, the self-penned Longing for Lucy, Moray is accompanied only by piano. Its subject matter ("Friday night in Emergency / Written off as another tragedy") and its arrangement suggest familiarity with Ben Folds, and show that his talents are not confined to setting others' words.
In the best of these songs, Moray has moved the folk-rock genre on. He has done so, not by glibly icing traditional songs with electronic percussion and digital bleeps. No two tracks take the same approach. His arrangements range from Richard Thompson-esque electric guitar, to French horns and real string instruments, to keyboard lines which could have come off a late-70s Genesis album.Admittedly, the likes of Fairport Convention really broke the new ground in this field 30 years or so ago. But even they, despite their many superb songs, sometimes refused to throw off folkie conventions - such as the nasal Mummerset accent which was thought obligatory for anything 'trad arr.'.
The successful songs on Sweet England break free of such shackles and allow traditional songs to breathe again in a genuinely new setting. Jim Moray has been rewarded by word-of mouth sales which must be the envy of other folk musicians. He's attracted widespread critical praise (broadcaster and music journalist Stuart Maconie named Sweet England as one of his albums of 2003). I'll be keen to see whether Moray continues to espouse the folk cause or uses his new-found fame to launch a singer-songwriter career.If he does the latter, he risks obscurity as just one more earnest young man in a bedroom with a guitar, a PC and some music software. If he can rise to the challenge of finding more old songs relevant to a new age, he deserves a wider audience still.
Track listing1. Early One Morning/Young Collins
Released on Jim Moray's own Niblick Is A Giraffe (honest!) labelWebsite: www.jimmoray.co.uk
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