This article is an update of a previous post that appeared in this blog on July 2018, when I introduced the best four traditional folk albums that were released in the first half of the year. The original selection has expanded and the list now includes a few additional masterpieces that were published in the last couple of months.
In the few weeks that remain before the end of the year we may expect some last minute entry, anyway the music presented in this page starts to be representative of the status of traditional folk in 2018. Which is definitely healthy and lively, as testified by the fact that there are two debut albums within the seven that are part of the selection.
Enjoy this list, and also the songs that have been selected for each record. Traditional folk, as I already wrote, is a genre of music where you can really feel the internal battle between tradition and innovation. And when this inner tension meets the skill and talent of a great artist, here we have those masterpieces that we love so much.
#1) Kyle Carey, “The Art of Forgetting”
Despite being a relatively young contributor to the folk world, American songwriter Kyle Carey has already taken a prominent role among the representatives of American Celtic music, which is that special style of folk that mixes together western European sounds with American (in this case Appalachian) elements.
On early 2018 Kyle Carey released the third full-lenght album of her discography, named The Art of Forgetting, and all the good things that have been said and written so far were totally confirmed by her new record. The beauty of Carey’s last album is further enhanced by the quality of the musicians who have been called to contribute to the recording of the songs. The release notes of the LP show that Carey has called together a super team of artists. Just to mention a few ones, we have singer, violinist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), American guitarist Sam Broussard (from the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys), and Scottish folk musician and composer John McCusker.
One of the most interesting aspects of Carey’s music is the absolute ability that she manifests in exploring different musical influences without ever altering and distorting the essential element of his style. And whatever is the inspiration of her songs, it may be an Irish ballad or an American poem, everything is shaped and incorporated into the music in an extremely natural way, creating a collection of songs that whilst showing an impressive stylistic coherence, at the same time are gifted by a variety of nuances that make the listening experience extremely pleasant.
#2) Bird in the Belly, “The Crowing”
Nowadays the UK folk scene seems particolary active, as witnessed by the fact that there is a new generation of artists that are gaining increased attention and consensus. Within the family of the younger folk bands, Bird in the Belly was formed a few years ago by a collective of artists and musicians with the stated objective to rediscover old and lesser known stories from the ancient British folk tradition, and present them to the public in the form of contemporary folk songs.
The Crowing is the debut LP from the band, and this record somehow shows all the merits, but also the defects, which we can expect from this type of operation. On the one hand we perceive all the charm of ancient and gothic folklore, here offered to the public by means of old-style melodies and enchanting atmospheres. The musical performance is unexceptionable and we can really feel the accurate work that was done by all the members of the collective to transpose into songs – and valorize – the original lyrical material. On the other hand, however, there is at times a certain “coldness”, or better “seriousness”, of the overall performance. We miss in a few songs that special feeling of urgency and transport which can only emerge when music become the way through wich an author expresses his inner feelings.
Taken as a whole, however, the record is enjoyable as well as interesting and quite original and this justifies its position among the bery best folk releases of the year. A special note of merit goes to Ben Webb (who plays under the stage name of Jinnwoo), a young and promising British artist who showcases here an impressive and special talent to give life to every song where he sings.
#3) Blowzabella, “Two Score”
Blowzabella aren’t absolutely newcomers in the folk world. This unique and characteristic English formation celebrates in 2018 their 40th year of activity (“two-scores”) and of course there are many records and publications released by them to date. In case there is someone approaching the band for the first time, what’s necessary to know is that Blowzabella distinguished themselves for their particular and truly unique style of music where traditional folk is merged with drone music. A vast array of acoustic instruments are in fact played and manipulated in order to obtain sounds and rhythms that are typical of the dance world (a “wall of sound” as they like to say), but always played with a traditional spirit. One could really say that the music of Blowzabella is one of those happy cases where the union between two distant worlds, in this case the legacy of the folk tradition and the spirit of innovation, has produced something that’s much larger than the sum of the original elements.
The last album by Blowzabella, Two Score, shows the band in a state of absolute grace: the maturity acquired by these musicians over the years is still supported by the desire to experiment new sounds and rhythms, so that their songs are never the mere repetition of schemes and tricks from the past repertoire. The LP offers also a relative variety among its tracks, and in the end the only thing these musicians ask to the listener is to free the spirit, start dancing and be carried away by the frenetic, hypnotic and magical music they’re creating for us.
#4) Kittel & Co, “Whorls”
American fiddler and violinist Jeremy Kittel has gained quite a relevant reputation as one of the most talented performer and composers of celtic folk and bluegrass, with a style which emphasizes both his technical skills and a special taste for timeless melodies. He’s been involved in many projects, both as a soloist and with supporting partners. In his most recent release, Whorls, he offers a new exciting collection of folk songs that are enriched by many different influences, including traditional celtic music, baroque classical melodies, American bluegrass and a few hints of jazz.
A number of skilled musicians contributed to Whorls, including mandolin phenom Josh Pinkham, guitarist Quinn Bachand, cellist Nathiel Smith, Simon Chrisman on dulcimer and also vocalist Sarah Jarosz. The quality of the performances is extraordinary, and the songs offer a good level of variety and surprises to keep the attention high along the entire record.
Beyond the value of the line-up, however, what I really appreciated in this LP is how the technical ability of Jeremy Kittel and his companions has been put at the service of a profound musicality. Rather than appearing as a mere demonstration of the skills of the performers, Whorls is ultimately a beautiful collection of engaging and enjoyable folk songs. There are some passages which make me stay open-mouthed for the expertise of the musicians in playing their instruments and also for the complex and articulate harmonies that they create, but what remains in my mind at the end of the record is the sweet and touching music I heard.
#5) The Furrow Collective, “Fathoms”
When a group of talented musicians who have already gained fame and appreciation as soloists decide to come together and form a new group, it’s not for granted that the final result will be up to the expectations. In the case of The Furrow Collective, however, the artists have reached a level of cohesion and unity so high that the goal is absolutely achieved. One of the reasons that made it possible is the fact that the music played by The Furrow Collective is composed by subtractions rather than overlaps, and each one of the participants has shown great wisdom and talen in dosing his own contribution without ever trying to stand out among the others.
The Furrow Collective is an English/Scottish traditional folk band, formed by artists of the caliber of Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell (from the Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell duo), Rachel Newton and Emily Portman. In the timespan of 5 years the band has released 3 full-lenght studio albums, and has already won the attention of both fans and critics. Fathoms is their most recent record and it confirms all the qualities that these musicians had already shown in their previous releases.
From a musical point Fathoms offers a particular and intriguing version of traditional folk which is enriched with many atmospheric and ambient-like elements. The tones are extremely delicate and, as I alerady mentioned, the overall lightness of the songs is mostly due to the impressive work that was done by each member of the band to keep his contribution extremely minimal, at times almost imperceptible. Many of the melodies in Fathoms are only alluded, outlined, rather than completely defined by the instruments, and this helps the music to be always ethereal and suspended.
Musically speaking, this is and extremely precious and delicate version of traditional folk that grows from the silence and which, because of that, risks to be dampened by the background noise. This music is not meant for being played from the speakers of the car or listened when you travel in the subway, it would be crashed from the external chaos. The songs of Fathoms, on the other hand, have the power to make you fly over distant and magic worlds, you have only to find the right moment to do it.
#6) Solasta, “A Cure for the Curious”
Despite their young age and their relatively recent appearance in the UK folk scene, Solasta are gaining increasing notoriety because of their peculiar style of celtic folk, wich incorporates many elements from classical and jazz, and also for their lively exhibitions. Solasta is composed by three young but already acclaimed instrumentalists: award-winning fiddler Elisabeth Flett, cellist Hannah Thomas and guitarist Jamie Leeming. But well beyond the talent of the individual musicians, it’s the emotional cohesion that they have achieved which makes thier music so effective and, at times, magical.
Solasta debuted in 2016 with a self-titled EP, and they released this year their debut LP, named A Cure for the Curious. The songs recorded by the trio don’t correspond to that idea of “popular” celtic folk (I would say “commercial”) that too often has been released for the masses of casual listeners. The music of Solasta is in fact deep and articulated, full of references and elements from ancient music, and it requires a certain patience and dedication to be appreciated in its entirety. The musical lines that are played by the three instruments intertwine in fact one with the other, generating articulated harmonies and atmospheres that are sometimes dreamy and joyful, sometimes darker and more reflective.
The songs that I like the most in A Cure for the Curious are the most melancholic, and in this respect one can see how these three musicians have been working hard for enhancing the emotional aspect of their music, rather than just focusing on the the uniqueness of their performance.
#7) Stick In The Wheel, “Follow Them True”
English folk band Stick in the Wheel, from East London, is bring a contemporary approach to celtic folk with theor style characterized by raw minimalism, setting vocals, simple accompaniments and handclaps. Follow Them True is their second album and it arrives two years and half after their 2015’s debut work, From Here.
Since the beginning of their career this quintet of folk enthusiasts has adopted an austere and formal approach to folk music, which is characterized also by the choice to use only acoustic instrumentation. As a result, their songs have always an ancient and suggestive charm which further exalts the fantastic voice of the singer Nicola Kearey. In their new album you won’t find danceable songs or pop-folk motifs, but rather a very good collection of ancient ballads and melodies of the past, all revisited with an aggressive spirit.
Only in some moments the tension and the austherity seem to leave the field for slightly more relaxed and poetic tones, and perhaps these are the most accessible and enjoyable parts of the disc, at least for the casual listener.
Many of the songs that were included in this post are featured on MELANCHOLIC FOLK, the playlist I’m curating on Spotify with the most moving and emotional folk songs.
And if you liked the music selected in this page, you will love my mixtape FOREVER AUTUMN. 37 minutes of pure poetry.