And now for the third of my little set of recommendations for the best of British folk-rock.
The first one covered the seventies, the second the eighties. The third covers 23 years and 2 less albums. Why? Well, the genre has not exactly expanded. And let’s just say I’m getting older (duh) and if there are hot new bands pursuing this genre in 2013, I have not really encountered them. An honest music reviewer should admit his ignorance. Hence, if there are shit-hot young groups making ripping classic British electric folk right now, you should probably tell me about them, because I’d love to know.
Still, the nineties were pretty fertile for this, one of my favouritest kinds of music, so the albums below are all damn good and well worth your time. There have even been a few good ‘uns since 2000, here in the Dark Ages of rock ‘n roll (which are the golden age of electronic music, by the way … it’s all relative).
I’ve yet to feature The Levellers here, but boy was I into them in the early nineties. These scruffy fellows fused The Clash’s punk-rock with The Pogues’ punk-folk but also possessed a real grounding in the earlier history of folk-rock and a genuine respect for the folk tradition, as well as a highly-developed pop sensibility. In other words, they were (and still are) great. Their heyday was about a decade from the late eighties to late nineties, during which period they were quite popular. Levelling the Land is probably their best-known album, but this is the best one, which expertly combines all those distinctive elements. The Levellers were an idealistic young person’s dream, energetic, hip and funky. “Hope Street” is a hard-charging youth anthem mixing big riffs and sweet acoustics. “The Fear“, “4 AM” and “Leave This Town” are raging punk rock questioning societal norms in the finest agit tradition , but with fiddle solos. But there are the usual nature-worshiping acoustic ballads such as “Maid of the River” and “Men-an-Tol“, which starts folky but ends Led Zeppelin. The Levellers’ mix of big guitar, big sentiments and authoritative folk stylings has not been equalled, except perhaps by New Model Army in their folkier moments.
Oysterband is the greatest post-seventies folk-rock band. Their music is an awe-inspiring mix of incredible songwriting based squarely in the folk tradition, with virtuosic playing, John Jones’ wonderful lead vocals, Ian Telfer’s fiddling and Alan Prosser’s virtuosic folk guitar, and angry but inspirational politics driven by the sharpest lyrics around. I love this band to death. While political and environmentalist sentiments had played a role in the band’s music before, on this rather angry album they took centre stage on the super-intense intelligent commentary of “We’ll Be There“, “Jam Tomorrow” and “Everywhere I Go”. Windswept, inspirational Celtic rock is here too, in “Blood Red Roses” and “By Northern Light“, and moving ballads like “Put Out the Lights“. Two excellent covers round things out: Bruce Cockburn’s classic “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (though that might just have been on my Canadian release) and Leon Rosselson’s legendary socialist anthem “The World Turned Upside Down”. No band combines sweet, super-catchy melody with both folk and rock expertise like the Oysterband. This is one of the best albums ever made in any genre of rock.
I reviewed this album quite extensively, so I won’t belabour the point. Sullivan is the singer of New Model Army, a band that came out of punk but sometimes utilizes pastoral folk motifs. While this isn’t a “rock” album, as an example of singer-songwriter music influenced by traditional music, it has few equals. The presence of Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson only adds to the cachet. There’s a maritime theme to many of the songs, but also dollops of Sullivan’s usual sharp social commentary and his evident love of nature. I’ll have to say it again — one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Read the review.
Judy Dyble was the original singer of Fairport Convention in 1967, then did a turn with a long-forgotten band named Trader Horne. She turned up at reunion shows a bit over the years, but few could have expected her to become a goddess of electro-folk who mixed the latest in electronic sounds with a devotion to mystical, psychedelic acid folk. She released three albums in short order, Enchanted Garden, Spindle and Whorl, which are all really, really good. There are no traditional songs on this album, but there is more than enough influence of that music to qualify it as primo electric folk (and kind of groundbreaking in a way). Examples of the trippy goodness here are “Misty Morning“, “Darkness to Light” and “Final Hour”. Whorl and Spindle accompany each other, so you should pick up both of them. A bonus is a nice cover of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”.
Surprise! The shaven-headed Irish priestess of various things, in addition to uncomfortably baring her soul over a series of albums (then adopting reggae) came out of the blue with an astonishingly good album of Irish traditional music, some done in a pretty straightforward style, some done with the aid what I must admit is quite classy electronica. It’s clear that this material has great sentimental significance to O’Connor, because she sings her heart out on this album, showing great subtlety and shades of emotion. I wish she’d make another one, frankly. Despite what you might think of her eccentric career and character, there is no doubt that she has a riveting voice, especially, as it turns out, for this kind of music. It’s an embarrassment of riches here, from the lengthy duet with Christy Moore on “Lord Baker” to a wonderous “Lord Franklin“, a transcendent “Parting Glass” and beautifully childlike “Molly Malone“. Not a duff track in sight and a very pure, honest set of music.
A Runrig album has been present on each of these lists, as is fitting, since these lads have carried the banner of Scottish rock since the seventies. They spent the late eighties making softer albums of anthemic tunes that mixed U2-style big rock with Scottish melodic themes. Frankly, it all got a bit too family-friendly for me, though I do have the albums. Mara in particular is quite good. But who would have thought that losing singer Donnie Munro to politics and replacing him with Nova Scotian country folk singer Bruce Guthro would work out? Guthro was not exactly known for rocking hard. But on this album, a collaboration with Paul Mounsey, Runrig evidently decided to bring back a bit of that righteous energy that characterized early albums like The Highland Connection and Recovery. Sure, there’s still lots of anthemic keyboardy pop, but it all just seems to hit harder, with up-front production and louder guitars, as well as a return to an activist perspective rather than a “let’s all just get along” and “children are our future” one. Hence we get the storming title track, which, while poppy, sounds huge and supremely inspirational. Tracks like the moving “Empty Glens” and “Day of Days” bring the rock hard, while delicate ballads like “Gabriel’s Sword” and “All the Miles” are tender without being sappy. And Guthro does have a marvellous voice. This album is a real return to form. I’ve read that some “fans” may not have approved. What kind of fans were these … idiotic ones?
Fiddler/singer Carthy’s folk pedigree is certainly unquestionable, being the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, two giants of the genre. As the younger representative of the dynasty, she plainly feels it her duty and honour to take the music in unexpected directions, and I do think it could be said she’s done her bit to widen the audience. This double album (also sold separately) contains two different personalities: the very traditional and the very radical, and it’s such an impressive work in scope that it was dutifully lauded by everyone in a position to care. In particular, Carthy bravely mixes what was super cutting-edge at the time, drum n bass sounds, with traditional pieces, with surprising success. The track “Red Rice” is the prime example. Other tracks are classic folk-rock (albeit funkier) such as “Billy Boy/The Widow’s Wedding“, though the beats could be said to be more trippy than rocky. Other tracks on the “Rice” disk are more traditional in sound (while still innovative in the arrangements), such as “The Snow It Melts the Soonest“, but as you can imagine, Carthy is expert at this sort of thing. This album cemented her status as Brit-folk’s brightest young light, which she remains.
Eliza Carthy turns up again in this folk supergroup (founded by Simon Emmerson of Afro Celt Sound System), of which her father is also sometimes a member. It continues breaking new ground (well, old ground) in adding world instruments to the mix, as well as innovative electronic production and beats. But it’s kept classy, I swear. The interpretation of “Cold Haily Rainy Night” (popularized by Carthy along time ago) is quite something. The effect is sometimes more electro Roma camp than working-class pub, but this music has to go somewhere new, doesn’t it? The aim appears to be represent all the cultures in modern Britain, which is an impressive and noble undertaking. Other nifty numbers are “Hard Times of Old England Retold” (remember Steeleye Span’s version?) and “Death and the Maiden Retold“. If you need any more impetus to get this, the vocalists include Sheila Chandra, Billy Bragg and John Copper. This is probably most innovative kick in the ass that British folk has received in a very long while, and if you have any spirit of adventure, you’ll probably check it out.
Funny I should choose this, because it’s possibly Thompson’s least English-sounding album. But it was the record that sort of “broke” him in the U.S. in a mini kind of way, and it contains a number of classic songs. I’ve never been a fan of Mitchell Froom’s weird, clattery but dry kind of production, but the songs overcome it. This is, of course, a mix of strange and cynical songwriting with both old-time American rock n’ roll and the occasional Brit-folk touch, and it contains a number of Thompson’s most accessible and toe-tapping songs. Which is saying a lot for a career that long. The best-known number is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning“, famous for the incredible wizardry of the master’s finger-picking and rather melodramatic tale of love on a bike — a nice update on the old storytelling ballad style. Other standouts are the dark comedy of “I Feel so Good” , the sorrowful “I Misunderstood“, moody “Mystery Wind” and tragic “God Loves a Drunk”. While there may be a strong American feel here, Thompson is one of the without-whoms of British folk-rock, so it was nice and bizarre at the same time to see this nominated for a Grammy.
Iona creates a fusion of Irish traditional music influences with new age/ambient sounds and “neo-prog” and has done quite well for itself. I must warn you that this is essentially a Christian-rock group, but I don’t let it bother me and neither should you, because this stuff is pretty as all heck. The band has a bit of a following with modern proggers who like Marillion, IQ, Mostly Autumn that sort of thing, and one can easily see why. The sounds mix ambient keyboard washes with lovely female vocals, Irish instruments and melodies (think Clannad) and electric guitar rooted in that hoary old David Gilmour school, providing a very atmospheric listening experience. Sure, it’s all very romantic and grand, and very fervent due to the devotional aspect, but it’s all quite beautiful to listen to overall. Bonus: Robert Fripp is on this album! Some samples: “Stormshelter”, with some nifty ambient synth, and “Brendan’s Voyage“, with some equally nifty guitar playing.