Trust the British to press forward the boundaries of folk music again, not towards America’s now-outre freak-folk, but instead incorporating subtle electronic effects in a remarkably mimetic approximation of organic life. Last year’s poster-boy was Adem. At the time, there was a sense of disappointment out there vis-à-vis Homesongs, but turns out Love and Other Planets still sounds undeniably fresh and sweet. It’s not just Adem: artists like Songs of Green Pheasant, and even Field Music, are using folk’s repetitive verse structures and gentle instrumentation. Despite its willingness to engage the darker aspects of life, ultimately this music tends to be glass-half-full — “Have faith in what you choose / ‘Cos life can sense your attitude, I don’t know how”, Adem sings on “Something’s Going to Come”.
Previously, Tunng has played a relatively minor role in this understated renaissance. The band’s instrumental-leaning, electronica-infused compositions purposefully existed on the periphery, occasionally too obvious in its construct — “let’s chuck in a sample here”, e.g. In this way, they were closer to mid-level singer-songwriters Jim Noir or Syd Matters than the most sophisticated purveyors of “folktronica”. But in the time since last year’s Comments of the Inner Chorus, (the group’s sophomore album), Tunng has taken a valuable step towards the mainstream of this British folk scene. And the results, at their best, are close to stunning.
Good Arrows is, more or less, the result of an expansion in Tunng, previously (and primarily) a vehicle for musicians Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders. Live, the group expanded, with Ashley Bates on guitar, Becky Jacobs on vocals, Phil Winter on synths, bass and various noises, and Martin Smith on percussion and a variety of other instruments. These musicians have now joined the band for real, contributing to the recording process and infusing Good Arrows with the feeling of a real band effort.
Tunng’s songs clearly benefit from this expanded input. First single, “Bricks”, buries its steady thread of pop beneath a swirling, complex instrumentation: it’s actually really calm, confident, well-considered folk: “All the bricks are bright and elegant and free … All the doors are bright and elegant and free.” The lyrics, throughout Good Arrows, find symbolism and deeper meaning in the everyday — one of the threads that ties the group’s music back to folk. Standout track “Bullets”, does incorporate the samples some critics have complained about in the past — true, they’re more distraction than integral to any of Tunng’s songs — but its gentle piano accompaniment pings from speaker to speaker; as the melody rises and the lyrics become more memorable (“We’re catching bullets with our teeth … with the best resources we’ve got”) you realise this is a sophisticated discussion of the modern condition filtered through folk music, with a very modern sensibility. It’s great stuff.
The track that reminds most of Adem is “Arms”. In particular it’s the melody, stretched out to breaking point over what seems an eternity, that shares that artist’s static beauty. In the background, the cracking of a wood fire, giving way to full electronic crackles and clicks, reminiscent of Japanese collage artist Takagi Masakatsu. It’s true there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this music — some guitar arpeggios recall Paul Simon, other electronic flourishes more diffusely familiar — but it’s clear Tunng’s music is genuine.
And that’s why we’ll keep being interested in the band. Clearly progressing from album to album, with Good Arrows Tunng has signalled the arrival of a fully conceptualised group sound. This understated music’s got heart.