So, why folk music?

My musical taste is fairly consistent – I generally like electronica and stuff where the rhythms and textures are more important that the melodies and the lyrics. This explains my love of drum and bass, shoe-gazing indie, ambient music, drone rock, discordant electronica, breaks, techno, deep house, dub and even happy hardcore. There are exceptions of course, but this is a handy rule of thumb when trying to work out whether I will like something or loathe it. I also prefer a nice open, spacious sound which explains why I’m not so keen on trance, modern dubstep, euphoric DnB and most pop music, which is generally too noisy and over-produced for my delicate ears.

https://encrypted-tbn2.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQ6aUnF3sGCpnPbpiTDfhipDByxofoD2DDYO5Kdyx9-gg-kmOi6FgBut folk sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s all about melody, all about musicality, all about lyrics. It also has an image problem. It often smacks of serious, bearded men with tankards of real ale, aran sweaters and one finger in their ear, wearing socks and sandals in a pub garden, surrounded by morris men* and people talking earnestly about hurdy-gurdies. And this is sometimes true. I’ve been to many folk gigs and seen these people. I’ve even seen them dancing, with a serious look on their hairy faces!

What is it, then, that draws me to folk music and to the people who play it? And how did I get interested in the first place?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Englishness of it. There just seems to be a type of sound or a key that evokes in me the same kind of feelings I get when looking out across green fields and rolling hills on hazy August afternoons and I find that really stirring. It also has a feeling of drama and of something wild, unpredictable and untamed.

At first, I heard hints of this sound in other music. Some of Paul Weller’s solo stuff has it, and Dodgy’s In A Room has it. It’s difficult to define what it is, but I know it when I hear it. I didn’t recognise it for what it was at first and it was only as I discovered music with a more deliberately folky feel that I started to understand it and seek it out.

I first heard Beth Orton on Radio 1 while I was working in a warehouse sticking labels on boxes. The track Someone’s Daughter was being played a lot by Jo Whiley and caught my attention. Not long afterwards I discovered her lovely Trailer Park LP and fell head-over-heels in love with it. Interestingly and perhaps crucially, the album was produced in part by trance and ambient producer William Orbit and in part by Andy Weatherall, another noted dance music producer who both lent the LP a dreamy electronic feel that perfectly complimented the more folky stylings. Moreover, Beth Orton also provided the vocal for Where Do I Begin, a delightfully folk-tinged chunk of breakbeat mayhem by the Chemical Brothers.

It wasn’t until 2006 though, that I finally decided to investigate the world of folk music proper, and I bought myself a copy of that year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards CD. I was instantly captivated, first by the instrumental delights of bands like Flook and Swap, but later by the powerful rhythmic fiddle-folk of Seth Lakeman, the drama and energy of Bellowhead and the stunning voices of Chris Wood, Martin Simpson and Julie Fowlis. All the Folk Awards CDs are worth checking out by the way, if you’re at all curious.

You can’t listen to music like this for long before the lyrics start to come into focus. One in a Million by Chris Wood brought tears to my eyes, as did Never Any Good by Martin Simpson. Spiers and Boden made me laugh out loud as they introduced me to the drama and humour of traditional songs about murder, death, crime, shagging and all manner of high jinks. The voices of singers like Karine Polwart and Jackie Oates made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and the good, honest Northern-ness of The Unthanks made me go weak at the knees.

Then there’s the history – the song collectors like Cecil Sharp and Frank Kidson, key figures in the folk revival like Ewan McColl and Bert Lloyd, singers from the 60’s and 70’s like Sandy Denny, John Martyn, folk-rock bands like the Oysterband and Fairport Convention and songs whose origins are in poems from the 1880s or traditional folk tales written in the 16th Century. It’s fascinating and complicated and exciting and can be appreciated on so many levels by everyone from the casual listener to the completist collector.

Bellowhead @ Bristol Folk FestivalLive folk is even more amazing. Pop and rock are great live but (with a few exceptions like the Bees or Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins from The Foo Fighters) I’ve never seen members of a rock band swap instruments on a whim and be able to play them flawlessly, as I often have with folk bands. The skill levels are so incredibly high – if you can find me a rock guitarist who can play like Martin Simpson, or a pop drummer who can play like John Joe Kelly from Flook, or a band who can play with genres and styles as effortlessly as Beshezzar’s Feast then I will let you pee in my pewter tankard. I know pop and rock aren’t about musical virtuosity and multi-instrumentalism – they are all about sex and rebellion – but it’s still an eye-opener when you first witness it. If you ever get the chance to see the 11-piece folk live monster that is Bellowhead, or to watch Seth Lakeman play Kitty Jay to a small, packed venue then do it without hesitation! It could quite possibly change your life.

But don’t confuse folk with folky. You can take your banjo-soaked, euphoric pop and fuck off (yes Mumford and Sons, I’m talking to you). Folky won’t cut it unless you bring something exceptional to the table, like Laura Marling and her astonishing voice for instance.

And it’s got to be British! I love Scots folk, especially sung in Scots dialect or Gaelic, because it’s full of dramatic, brooding, doomed love songs and wild imagery to match the rugged Scottish landscapes. Further afield and it gets complicated. I do love Irish instrumental folk, and can appreciate the skill of their singers, but I feel a tiny bit removed from it for some reason. And it’s the same, only more so, with American Folk – I like a bt of Bluegrass, but Dylan, Baez and Seeger leave me cold.

So, hopefully I’ve explained a bit of what attracts me to the music. Please don’t mistake my love of Englishness with a dislike of anything or anyone else. I love my English roots and heritage but I’m not a member of the EDL or anythng like that! I frequently marvel in wonder at music from all over the world; it just doesn’t make me think of haystacks, crumbling castles, dramatic deciduous woodland, rainy summer afternoon and warm beer in quite the same way as English folk music does.

(* Morris dancing is brilliant by the way, if it’s done properly. Find a good group of morris men and watch them dance or do a mummers play and tell me I’m wrong!)

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I have finally managed to get my arse in gear and recorded a new Loftcast podcast. It’s a collection of songs themed loosely around crime, murder and death. There is a fair amount of folk on it, mainly because folk songs are chock-full of tales of betrayal, murder, revenge, unrequited love, suicide, accidental drowning and other fatal mishaps. There is also a bit of Nick Cave, a bluegrass reworking of an old English folk song, some Doors and a funky version of a well known American folk song called Stagolee. Hope you like it.

The Loftcast

It was pointed out to me the other night that I haven’t blogged for a while and this is very true – I’ve had a number of other things to do (see my About page for more details) and have let the blogging slip, plus I haven’t been to the cinema for a while and so haven’t been moved to write anything on the subject of films.

I will try and get back on the horse and blog a bit more over the next few weeks. Just be patient and I will be back to my boring, verbose, subjective, opinionated self before you know it.

I’ve just been listening to The Frankie Knuckles remix of Blind by Hercules and Love Affair.

By rights I should absolutely hate this record. It’s house, and not wonky-house, or crack-house, or progressive-house, just housey-house. It’s American – I know they invented house music, but we invented football and rugby and we’re not very good at those most of the time. It’s got a male vocal by Antony from Antony and the Johnsons which should make me tired and angry and stabby, like the rest of the Antony and the Johnsons stuff does. It’s got welling emotional strings which should make me feel manipulated and uncomfortable. All of these things should turn me off.

But they don’t. It fills my heart with joy and makes me swoon alarmingly. Plus it’s got the sexiest bassline since Armand Van Helden got his hands on Tori Amos’s Professional Widow.

I have recently fallen in love with two exceptional electronic pop LPs. One is old – almost as old as me – and the other is brand, spanking new. Both are remarkable, beautiful creations, both are made by collections of odd, obsessive men and both are fine examples of how music made with computers doesn’t have to be cold and impersonal.

The first of these LPs is The Man Machine by Kraftwerk. Given that this was released in 1978 and I am a big fan of electronic music, you’d think I’d already have this LP, or at least have heard it. However, aside from The Robots and The Model, I’d remained blissfully ignorant of its existence for 34 years until I finally picked up a copy on vinyl a couple weeks ago. Despite it’s deliberately minimal, stylised feel it’s wonderfully warm and almost whimsical (especially Neon Lights), while the arch humour of The Model, delivered in wonderfully clipped, German-accented English, is a joy.

Technologically speaking, it was amazingly ahead of its time. The production is crisp and there is none of the shonkiness you’d expect, given the primitive equipment and software that must have been used to record it. Much of it must have been played live or looped using non-digital means. The mind boggles!

The second LP which has been getting a battering on the Lofthouse hi-fi is the new Hot Chip album, In Our Heads. We bought it on vinyl because it was a lovely heavy-weight pressing and it sounds absolutely fantastic. I have always rather liked Hot Chip’s singles, but been somewhat ambivalent towards their previous LPs, but their latest single Night and Day was arresting enough to give the whole LP a go and it doesn’t disappoint. Each listen bring a new track to my attention as I notice little noises, melodies, lyrics, drum sounds and samples. When your favourite track on an LP changes regularly, you know you’ve come across a classic!

For those of you who don’t know Hot Chip they make electronic music, but without the emphasis on sequencers and loops, preferring to play the music live. This means that they have much in common with bands like New Order (as evidenced by the very New-Ordery opener Motion Sickness) but there are all sorts of other influences in the mix – Night and Day recalls Bassment Jaxx in their pomp and the drums on Let Me Be Him sound like early detroit techno until the melody rushes in and it goes all Screamadelica. Simply wonderful.

So, a classic LP and an early contender for the best LP of this year… all in all, it has been a great couple of weeks.

I love Jack White III. I’m not his biggest fan, I don’t hang on his every riff, I don’t gobble up his every track, production and side project, but I love him.

I say all this because the Lovely Janine and I saw him (and his all-boy band) on Thursday night last week at the Brixton Academy. I had a slightly odd reaction to the gig – I did enjoy it but found it a bit noisy and chaotic and I thought that some of the versions of the songs weren’t as good as their recorded counterparts. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the past few days, so I thought I’d share these thoughts with you. Aren’t I thoughtful?

I first became aware of Jack White (I’ll drop the III from now on if you don’t mind – no sense being so formal) when someone gave me a copy of the mighty Elephant LP by his band The White Stripes. Unless you’ve been living under a stone since 2003, you’ll know the LP, or at least some of the songs. Bluesy, clever, loud, intricate, mesmerising and full of idiosyncrasies, it was recorded in London, using old equipment and without the use of computers (a recurring theme in the White Stripes universe), and was extremely successful and well received by critics and fans. It has aged well – I’m listening to it again at the moment – and is rightly regarded as something of a classic. For me, it helped get me back into guitar music again, after many years of being addicted to electronica. Ball and Biscuit is still my favourite track from the LP, although I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself and Seven Nation Army run it close.

That might have been where I left Jack White if it hadn’t been for the Lovely Janine – who is a proper fan. She began to follow his career with some interest. She collected the older White Stripes LPs and, when the side projects began to take shape as the White Stripes came to a close, it was her who bought the albums and took me to the gigs.

I think the first gig featuring Jack (I think I’ll drop the White now too, it might seem over-familiar but I don’t think he’ll ever read this and be offended) that I saw was The Raconteurs at Bristol’s Colston Hall. It was shortly after their rather good first LP – Broken Boy Soldiers – was released and they actually didn’t have all that many songs. Jack filled the gaps with lots of wailing guitar solos and long improvisations which drove me to absolute distraction. The LP was good because it was solid and basic and no-frills, and the live noodling was absolute anathema to me.

Thank goodness then for the White Stripes headline set at the Leeds leg of the Wireless Festival in 2007. We braved the rain which plagued the day and the resultingly lacklustre support set from the Queens of the Stone Age and were rewarded by a break in the rain and a masterclass in stripped-back, bluesy rock from Jack and Meg. I think it was Meg’s primitive drumming, and Jack’s need to provide everything else (leaving less time for self-indulgent noodling) that made it so spectacular. The two of them filled the stage in a way that the 5 members of QOTSA had utterly failed to do an hour before, and it was absolutely amazing.

The second Raconteurs LP – Consolers of the Lonely – was as good as the first, nice and solid and relatively free of epic noodling. But this wasn’t enough for Big J (as I like to call him) and he formed yet another band called The Dead Weather with the lead singer of the Kills and released two LPs – Horehound and Sea of Cowards which I am not too fussed about. We saw the Dead Weather play at the O2 Academy in Bristol and they were OK. Jack was on drums for most of the night, although he did play lead guitar on a couple of tracks, causing the audience to go a little bit mental. Personally my night was made by The Creature with the Atom Brain who supported. They are a metal band from Belgium with beards and riffs and a whole pile of awesome.

So, given my varying reactions to J-Dubya’s (last one, promise) live shows and side-projects, why have I felt the need to write so much? Well, I think the music world needs more people like Jack White III. He’s eccentric, obsessed with the number 3, makes his roadies wear nice suits and trilby hats, has two complete bands (one male, one female) on his current tour and only decides which one he will play with on the day of the show, understands the role of story, image and performance in presenting his music, is obsessed with old technology, is slightly pompous but also quite aware of his own pomposity (look at the scathing quote from a bad review proudly posted across his website). He’s a genius, a showman, a historian, a focal point for other astonishing musicians and, when all’s said and done, an excellent songwriter.

Oh, and just a quick mention for his vinyl fetish! He runs Third Man Records, which has been instrumental in keeping vinyl alive outside the dance music scene (vinyl sales are increasing again at last, while CD sales keep falling). They have a long running series of excellent 7″ singles featuring artists as diverse as Seasick Steve, Laura Marling and Tom Jones. They play with the format, releasing coloured vinyl, vinyl with CDs pressed inside and even a vinyl record containing a coloured liquid in the centre which squidges around and makes beautiful patterns. He understands that vinyl feels good, looks good and, most importantly, sounds better.

So that’s why I love Jack White III so much. If you’ll excuse me now, I’m off to listen to Elephant again at speaker-damaging volume.

My friend Andy bought me a ticket to see NoFX last night at the Academy in Bristol. I didn’t know an awful lot about them apart from that they are an American punk rock band. I am a bit ambivalent about American punk, which is often quite bouncy and full of energy, but which doesn’t really do much for me. I dutifully listened to and quite enjoyed a couple of their CDs before the gig in order to prepare myself. We did a certain amount of apple-based, liquid ‘preparation’ too.

This morning I am tired, slightly hung-over, bruised and battered, and there’s an extremely sweaty t-shirt lurking somewhere at home that needs a good wash. They were amazing live; all that bouncy energy worked its magic and I got involved in some heavyweight moshing. I should know better at my age, but bollocks to that!

NoFX – Radio