UK semi-super folk group spins languorous, sunny-afternoon soundscapes out of old songs, string-band jams, psyche-soul one-hits and a Carly Simon song.
This second outing from British folk electronicist Stephen Cracknell and others has a loose and engaging charm. You imagine the bunch of them -- violins, guitars, basses and cellos in tow -- warm and convivial in someone's kitchen, poring over yellowed sheet music and saying, "Oh, this one, let's do this one next." That Cracknell's friends include Adem Ilhan (of Fridge), Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip) and Simon Lord (Simian, Garden) does not detract from the homespun casualness of this record, which seems like folk unfiltered through the "new weird America" lens, naïve and honest and non-selfconscious.
The disc breaks down roughly even between instrumental and sung cuts, and the vocals are themselves split between Cracknell and guest singer Nancy Wallace. Add in a couple of interesting covers and you end up with a fairly diverse disc, though one with an overarching mood of rustic simplicity. Consider the opening cut, "Blackwaterside", a traditional song borrowed from Bert Jansch, twined round with sweet-sour violin and viola and paced by hand-slapped drums. It's like a lazy walk down a gravel road, moving just fast enough to keep things interesting, but allowing plentiful space for rumination and memory.
The violin, played by Jennymay Logan (of the Elysian Quartet), is one of the defining sounds of this mustily gorgeous album, as she swoons and scrapes through the instruments and adds subversive textures to the sung tracks. She is everywhere on this record, warm then abrasive, sweet then crazily off-kilter, but never more so than in the eight-minute "I Wish I Wish." Here the complications of strings, stirring up whirls and eddies of crazy sound, stands in marked contrast to Wallace's soft, child-like voice, adding edge and aggression to what might otherwise be just another sad song.
Most of the songs on this album are either traditional ones or Cracknell's fairly respective take on British folk forms, but there are two really interesting covers. The first, "Want to Know You", was first written by John Stocklin for the Rotary Club, a psyche-soul outfit fronted by Minnie Riperton. Like the rest of the songs, this one starts with mournful folk-leaning strings and acoustic guitars. You don't hear the soul influence until the vocals start, the cello line suddenly transforming into something like a funk-soul bassline, the chorus rising into subtle triumph. But once you've heard it, it's inescapable, and you wonder how you missed it the first time. The other cover anomaly comes later on the album with "Why", a song most famously sung by Carly Simon. Again, the guitar figure that introduces the song could not be more folk traditional, nor could the low-toned swirls of string (viola maybe?). Yet as the song proceeds, its '70s California lilt bubbles up from underneath, coloring, but not overwhelming the essential texture of the song.
In a year that has seen lots of bands stretching the boundaries of traditional folk -- Espers with its VU drone, Feathers with its trippy communal vocals and Tunng with its electronic embellishments -- Apron Strings seems content to stick with the basics. Not all folk has to be "new". Not all songs have to mess with the formula. This is a very warm, solid outing from a talented group of folks, and it'll feel just right on a lazy Sunday afternoon.