Whatever he might say to the contrary, Jim Moray has married into folk music. His excellent albums represent a series of innovatively renewed vows.
Jim Moray first came to major attention in 2003 with the release of Sweet England, an album that presented traditional English folk songs such as "Young Collins" and "Lord Bateman" in new, remixed versions that placed more emphasis on electronic sounds than traditional acoustic instruments. As much as any album released in that era, it marked the evolution of the bedroom-studio as a site suitable for the production of music in almost any genre. While riling some traditionalists, Moray found favor with many for having shown the logical outcome of folk music's oft-valorized DIY aesthetic. The album won him critical acclaim, support slots on prestigious tours, and a BBC Folk Music Award.
An annoyingly talented young man, Moray was not seeking to escape the demands of "traditional" instruments, as he proved via his mastery of a wide variety of them. Armed with studio skills, an original eye for arranging, and a talent for harnessing the emerging potential of Internet marketing and social networking sites, Moray went on to further success with a second, self-titled album, featuring densely orchestrated pieces and radical rewritings of traditional melodies. His 2008 album Low Culture was yet more adventurous, adding new instrumental textures from around the globe. It opened with a version of "Leaving Australia" that made use of African instruments such as the mbira (thumb piano) and kora. Moray has previewed an abridged version of his new album In Modern History by giving copies away with the magazine Songlines; the full version will be released in June.
Having made quite a name for himself in Europe, Moray is now seeking to further his profile abroad, hence this Beginners Guide. The album compiles typical examples of his work drawn from his three albums and little-known debut EP, I Am Jim Moray. The aforementioned "Leaving Australia" is included, along with nine other traditional or half-traditional pieces and Moray's take on XTC's "All You Pretty Girls". Moray was also part of the "Looking for a New England" package that was showcased in New York and at SXSW earlier this year. The concerts, along with an accompanying CD put together by the British magazine fRoots, sought to promote the cream of new talent on the vibrant British folk scene. Appearing with Moray were his sister, the singer-fiddler Jackie Oates, and the magical Northeast English group the Unthanks, among others.
Moray shares these artists' sense of adventure and innovation. His work can also be compared to the "folktronica" of Kieran Hebden's Fourtet and to the fusing of tradition, rock, and hip hop undertaken by Transglobal Underground, the Afro Celt Sound System, and the Imagined Village, whose Simon Emmerson worked with Moray on his Sweet England album.
Many of these tracks stray far from what some would consider folk music. "Sprig of Thyme" kicks off with riffing electric guitars. There is a constant sense of attack and sustain throughout the track, even as the familiar, time-drenched lyrics unravel. "Barbara Allen" sounds unlike any of the popular versions of that perennially popular song. The arrangement is more akin to the verse-chorus structure of a pop song. A number of tracks, "Lord Bateman" among them, feature the kind of haunted, skittering beats found in post-techno genres such as grime and dubstep (last year, Moray released a "folk-dubstep" single entitled "Lucy Wan"; it's available on his Low Culture album but not included here). But then, "folk music" itself is a contentious term, too often referring to a style of playing, singing, and instrumentation rather than connecting to the music of the people.
Jim Moray has stated that he is not interested in authenticity. What he seems to be saying is that he is not interested in churning out folk songs in the manner in which they have traditionally been performed in folk clubs. If this is what he means, then two points immediately need to be raised. First, despite numerous attempts during the twentieth century to police what can and cannot be performed in folk clubs, there are still many performers who can only identify with traditional music through personalization and innovation. Most serious scholars of folk music agree that this is how tradition moves on. Secondly, any disavowal of authenticity is already an admission that such a thing exists. Distancing oneself from it does not show a disinterest, but quite the opposite.
More important, though, is the fact that there are many types of authenticity. One definition of the word refers to that which can be authenticated, but the question always remains: by whom? Another refers to that which is credible in a particular context, a useful definition in that it places emphasis on issues of truth, believability, and fidelity, all qualities observable in performers and audiences. For my own part, I like to think of two types of authenticity, both referring to truth. One is about being true to some kind of template, such as when one speaks of an authentic blues artist, fado singer, or folk performer. The other is about being true to oneself as an individual and an artist. This manifests itself in the artistic propensity towards originality and reinvention.
Moray, then, is clearly aligning himself with the second type of authenticity, while performing a critique of the first. He represents what might be called a "critical fidelity", an attachment to the past that nonetheless constantly seeks to renew its promise. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida claimed, in reference to marriage vows, it is never enough to simply say "I do"; the vow must constantly be renewed, the "I do" of today clearly distinguishable from the "I do" of yesterday.
Whatever he might say to the contrary, Jim Moray has married into folk music. His four excellent albums represent a series of innovatively renewed vows. His music sets up useful dialogues with other moments of history and other genres, such as when his splendid version of "All You Pretty Girls", complete with a brass band arrangement that cannot fail to signify "English tradition" even as it glances in the direction of New Orleans, reminds us that pop bands such as XTC (and before them, the Kinks) have often been as close to distilling the national spirit as any more traditional folk artists.
It's a shame that the packaging of A Beginners Guide hasn't been given the attention to detail shown on Low Culture, where the overall aesthetic helped to seal Moray's claims to folk song as everyday culture. Still, the emphasis is clearly on functionality. It's a well-chosen selection of tracks which should serve the artist well as a calling card for an international audience.