[22 November 2010]
If members of the United Kingdom’s thriving folk revival scene were to hold court, Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling would be its Lord and Lady. That there is a duet between these two outstanding talents on Flynn’s second release, Been Listening, is enough to send tremors of euphoria throughout the kingdom. The song in question, “The Water”, is a marvel; so much was expected. What wasn’t expected was that Been Listening would repeat this gorgeous moment so many times over .
Been Listening is at its very strongest when focusing on the more rollicking side of folk. Flynn, an accomplished trumpeter, puts this instrument to good use on several tracks here, most delightfully on opener “Kentucky Pill”. The song is big in ways that prior release A Larum merely hinted at; from the aforementioned trumpet to Flynn’s confident voice to the backing vocals of Flynn’s band, the Sussex Wit, the song is a stomper of an opener. Backing vocals reappear on follow up track, “Lost and Found”, this time turning things more maudlin with the closing refrain, “Just a lonely radio / Just a makeshift show and tell / Playing out lives at the lost and found.” After just two songs, Flynn already illustrates that he’s just as good at doing poignant as he is at doing joyous.
Throughout Been Listening‘s first eight tracks—and excepting “The Water”—Flynn aims big and succeeds. Of Flynn’s many talents, his most improved and perhaps strongest is his voice. Most notably on “Howl”, Flynn sounds mightier and more fearless than any of his folk peers. Yet Flynn also knows when to pull back. “Sweet William (Part 2)” opens with mandolin and cello to create a gypsy quality similar to something Patrick Wolf might aim for had he a better sense of restraint. As soon as Flynn comes in with his strong, raw delivery, it is apparent the song could come from no one but Flynn.
Like Marling, Flynn’s vocal style is very much his own; this is likely one of the reasons their delicate “Water” duet is such a success. Sandwiching the song between two formidable tracks, “Sweet William (Part 2)” and “Howl”, threatens to make “The Water” seem less of a standout, but somehow all three songs support each other enough to create an unforgettable middle half.
Following “Howl”, Been Listening experiences a slight decline in captivation. “Agnes”, “Amazon Love”, and “The Prizefighter and the Heiress” are all slow burns with few remarkable moments, although the backing vocals Flynn’s sister, Lillie, injects “Amazon Love” with a little extra prettiness. The critic’s review copy (along with, it appears, the Transgressive 12-inch version) came with bonus tracks in the form of Flynn’s 2009 Sweet William EP which features, among three other songs, the first part of “Sweet William (Part 2)”. Although part one is not as engaging, it does show the considerable leap Flynn has made in just one year. In a future that holds much uncertainty for young artists, Flynn will hopefully be one with staying power to spare.