Gwenifer Raymond Impresses with Her American Primitive Guitar Style on 'You Were Never Much of a Dancer'
A new voice in American Primitive Guitar, Welsh instrumentalist Gwenifer Raymond matches dexterity with melody on a strong debut.
You Were Never Much of a Dancer
29 June 2018
It's actually not that uncommon a story: young kid becomes enamored with punk rock, learns to play a couple chords, forms a band, or maybe a sequence of bands, and it's all fun until it starts to get boring, repetitive even. Then the young musician discovers the old folk or blues recorded in the American South during the 1920s and 1930s and a new world opens up. Something about the raw passion in those old songs connects to the contemporary outsider and fuels the exploration of a whole new persona. This is pretty much a piece of Gwenifer Raymond's story as well, though the Welsh musician who now resides in Brighton, England, has embraced one of the more obscure offshoots of the American traditional folk canon: American Primitive Guitar.
American Primitive Guitar is a unique sub-genre of acoustic instrumental guitar music that exists under the always foreboding shadow of John Fahey, the late, idiosyncratic, and troubled genius credited with almost single-handedly inventing the form. It's an often grizzled and stubborn group who produces and passes judgment upon the genre, and it's almost exclusively male. Anyone who has explored Tompkins Squares' genre-defining Imaginational Anthem anthologies is familiar with the form's leading lights: Robbie Basho, Suni McGrath, Max Ochs, Sandy Bull, Michael Chapman, the commercially successful Leo Kottke, and the tragically short-lived Jack Rose. And sprinkled among those collections is a small assortment of fingerpicking women capable of meeting and even beating their male contemporaries note for note. But it's a frustratingly small group.
Gwenifer Raymond steps boldly forward with her Tompkins Square debut You Were Never Much of a Dancer. The short violin opener "Off to See the Hangman, Part One" is appropriately moody, if a bit out of place for lack of the instrument's appearance again, but it signals that Raymond's is a voice that follows her own muse. Raymond is more than capable of jaw-dropping, dexterous twists of playing—just witness "Dance of the Everlasting Faint" or "Bleeding Finger Blues"—and she is not afraid of evoking the past masters while forging her own path. "Face Down Strut" shows she can approach Kottke's machine-gun complexity while maintaining a melodic base, and "Sweep It Up" plays like a deliberate homage to Fahey.
One of the most refreshing and defining characteristics of Raymond's playing is that for all of her technical dexterity, she will choose the melodic line over the flash of technique every time, as in the engrossing "Sometimes There Will Be Blood" or the delicate "Laika's Song". The album is a master class in technical dexterity, yet it is also a joyful listening experience. Some classic cuts among the American Primitive genre can be an outright challenge to listen to, impressive for their fret-board pyrotechnics but often jarring and occasionally off-putting. Frankly, some of those old masters can occasionally find themselves fumbling along a very narrow boundary between the truly visionary and what sounds like an extended tuning exercise. Raymond never lets her digital dexterity get in the way of her melodic ear.
Those new to the genre will find a stable ground from which to begin further explorations here, while those who are seeking an engaging and talented new instrumentalist will enjoy this at face value.