[11 August 2008]
Americans are so accustomed to thinking of folk and country as our own original art forms that we sometimes forget the truism that our folk genre is actually a direct product of the immigrant experience, with roots firmly planted in the British Isles. American folk singers are the artistic descendants of the British bard, a term which connotes in the imagination the lush pastoral fields of Great Britain and Ireland. There are story-songs that exist, in slightly modified form, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the British version of the traveling troubadour sings with a storyteller’s voice that has been adopted by American folk singers in every era.
Johnny Flynn, a young British singer-songwriter, is keenly aware of this relationship, and his training as a performer is steeped in the story-song tradition and practice on both sides of the pond. Originally inspired by that most famous of bards, Flynn acquired a Shakespearean actors’ training early on, and while performing as an actor in the United States, he began playing in New York with anti-folk performers like Jeffrey Lewis.
That career progression is key, because the music that Flynn produces sounds like an anti-folkie’s modern take on Chaucer’s meandering tales of Middle English knights and kitchen girls. Flynn opens his new LP A Larum (his debut recording in the United States) with a celebration of the life of a transient hobo, and then proceeds to barrel through 12 more songs full of wayward priests, foxes and burrows, orchards and wheelbarrows, bowling greens and livery boys, ghosts and funeral pyres. And while fans of the American nu-folk and freak folk scenes are thoroughly familiar by now with lyrical flights of fancy through rural countrysides and wooded forests, Flynn distinguishes himself by mostly steering clear of flighty whimsy and keeping his vocal performance grounded and earthy. The voice Flynn cultivates is not that of a wood sprite a la Joanna Newsom, but rather of a minstrel or town crier, roaming from village to village with his mandolin, spreading the news through song.
It certainly helps that Flynn possesses a singing voice uniquely suited to this minstrelry tone. Flynn sings in a wood-cured whiskey baritone that sounds at times as if the low, weary wail of Okkervil River’s Will Sheff suddenly acquired the sandpaper brogue of Billy Bragg. It also helps that Flynn’s band, the aptly named Sussex Wit, is especially adept at the rough-hewn and joyous music-making that gives the whole album the feel that it was recorded by a pub musicians’ jam circle. The best tunes of A Larum trot along, their guitar, mandolin, and banjo strums thumped by percussion and buzzing bass and brightened by fiddles and muted trumpets. It’s all thrown together with a raucous, loose-limbed aesthetic that, while surely quite premeditated, nevertheless sounds spontaneous and free. All of the highlights here—“The Box”, “Eyeless in Holloway”, “Tickle Me Pink”, and “Leftovers”—sound like instant barroom classics, with catchy rhythms driving boozy, yelled choruses.
Of course, it’s also nearly impossible to exist as a folk musician in this age without owing some kind of creative debt to Bob Dylan. Flynn isn’t shy about his homage to the U.S.’s own legendary bard’s pre-electrified era, fingerpicking his way around references to Hattie Carroll and tumbling, mumbling, overflowing lyrics on songs like “Shore to Shore” and “Tunnels”. The banjo and harmonica—two homegrown folk instruments that Americana did not import from Great Britain but rather sprung up from the merging of Scotch-Irish and African traditions that met in the Appalachians—also play prominent roles here, highlighting folk’s trajectory across the Atlantic. But the nice thing about A Larum is that rather than merely echoing Dylan’s American style, Flynn reminds us of its deep lineage, even further back than the Dust Bowl America that is the typical starting point for narrating Dylan’s stylistic journey. In this sense, the whole album also owes a bit of a debt to the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society British pastoral nostalgia.
A Larum’s first single, “Leftovers”, best exemplifies Flynn’s style of nostalgic British shanty-folk. The song celebrates a Dickensian lifestyle of living from scraps and throwaways. “Show me the way to the rubbish dump / Or the bins at closing time”, he sings over a fiddle line that teeters along drunkenly, “I’ve walked a mile just to catch a smile / From a fish without its brine”. Fishing for crusts and crumbs, the singer meets a girl named Mary May (what else could her name be, really?), who provides the vagrant’s archetypal love match, and the two live ever after in their happily grubby second-hand life. The song, like the album as a whole, rolls along so free-wheelingly that sometimes it seems to waver perilously on the edge of too-precious kitsch, but then manages to regain its balance and shuffles onward confidently.
A “larum” is the Middle English term for a town’s central warning bell, and so the album is even named after the town crier’s tool for spreading his word. It will be interesting to see if Flynn maintains this consistent vision and style in his future work, or if A Larum will be a free-standing tribute to Americana’s pastoral British roots, before Flynn launches off on another road. Either way, one hopes that this warm, loose album is just the start from this very promising musical journeyman.