The way in which the singer-songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s incorporated the disciplines of jazz, the sentiments of blues and the structures of rock into a traditional English folk aesthetic made for a distinctly timeless sound; a sound that has routinely been referenced in subsequent developments of folk music and sees even artists today customarily hark back to this pivotal era in the genre’s history. These fingerpicking sensibilities that blended a traditional blues style with the ragtime-based East Coast approach have become so engrained within the soundscapes of folk music, both from the UK and the US, that, to a casual listener, many of the guitarists who progressed this attitude around half a century ago could be mistaken for more modern artists. With the existence of musicians like James Elkington, such errors could easily be forgiven. Hailing from the UK, Elkington is a guitarist that many fans of folk music may have heard, but not necessarily heard of. Having worked as a session musician or touring band member for countless singer-songwriters, ranging from Richard Thompson to Jeff Tweedy and even to some of the luminaries of folk jazz from the 60s and 70s, having contributed to Michael Chapman’s celebration of 50 years in the music industry on his latest album, 50, Elkington’s knowledge and experience covers a great deal of ground within folk and its derivative incarnations. Upon the announcement of his debut solo album, Wintres Woma, therefore, came the question of how the now lone folkster would approach his first foray into stepping out from the sidelines and into the spotlight. Undoubtedly, the lifeblood of Wintres Woma derives from the classic singer-songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s, with not only the aforementioned Michael Chapman acting as an artistic touchstone for Elkington, but also the likes of Nick Drake, Davey Graham, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell, among numerous others. If there is one major influence featured across the record, however, that would unequivocally have to be Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch. Despite Elkington being an Englishman based in Chicago, his warm baritone singing nevertheless retains a similar articulation to that of Jansch, mixed in with some Nick Drake and perhaps even Elliott Smith, just as his approach to folk baroque guitar incorporates many similarly pronounced blues and jazz leanings. It also seems as if the artist is well aware of the prominence of Jansch’s overbearing influence across the album, with even the album artwork of Wintres Woma being heavily evocative of that of the legendary singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut, which cemented his legacy in the history of British folk music. However, although Elkington may very much wear his influences on his sleeve, that’s not to say that his own personality as a folkster doesn’t shine through on this first record of his, rather his flair for composing, storytelling and encapsulating the rustic appeal of classic English folk music is translated loud and clear through a selection of detailed and masterfully-performed pieces.
If anything, Wintres Woma is somewhat of a conglomerate of influences from across the folk map, whilst dashes of Elkington’s own characterful stylings are peppered throughout these compositions. With the opening track, Make It Up, being a rich lattice of fast, fingerpicked fretwork that interchanges between cavernous open chords and ascending blues notes, whilst the delicate pattering of bongos and gently cascading bounce of the double bass fill out the room left by Elkington’s spacious guitar work, it’s hard not to recall the identical timbre of songs like Three Hours or ‘Cello Song from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. Similarly, the singer’s deep, rigid voice retains a vivid English lilt, much like Drake’s, although certain strands of melodies will recall the wispy quality of Elliott Smith’s definitive vocal style, just as the way in which the melody of Elkington’s vocals and his guitar playing align during the chorus is undoubtedly evocative of Bert Jansch. Likewise, Hollow In Your House, My Trade In Sun Tears and especially the frantic fingerpicking and bluesy string-bending of Greatness Yet To Come see a strong sense of melody that is undeniably similar to that of Bert Jansch, specifically on his first record, as Elkington’s guitar work reinforces his vocal lines, with his meandering melodies being finely interlaced within these fingerpicked labyrinths. In the case of Hollow In Your House, interspersed between the musician’s allusions to the natural, symbolist imagery that has always held such a strong cultural significance to English folk music, with poignant lines like, “every time a crow does speak / He drops a worm from his beak”, a tasteful pedal steel guitar weaves its way into the song’s instrumental palette, adding a distinct country flavour to the piece. Of course, there’s more to referencing the sounds of Americana music than simply through the use of instruments associated with the genre, but the pedal steel employed on Hollow In Your House most definitely strikes the same swooping portamenti that is inseparable from American country music, thus creating a striking and vibrant duality of textures and styles. Much in the same vein, the vibrant, fingerpicked, chordal melodies of Grief Is Not Coming retain a definitively English hue, allowing the later integration of a slide steel guitar to establish a colourful and spirited contrast of American and English folk traditions, which can also be said of The Hermit Census and its impactful inclusion of intermittent banjo picking, amidst sudden smatterings of stuttering strings.
Indeed, the points of artistic and stylistic reference across Wintres Woma are diverse and deftly incorporated, but much of the album’s wistful charm arises from Elkington’s unique ability to paint vivid pictures through song, with the interplay between his music and his lyrics being integral to his expression and storytelling. The third song in the tracklisting, for instance, is comparatively slower and drearier than the preceding pieces, which is only fitting, given its title of Wading The Vapors. As Elkington contemplates memories so distant that they begin to feel like fiction, a plaintive cello supports the singer’s unhurried and reflective vocal melodies, before being given free rein to wallow in the percussive stutters and atonal flutters of its solo section, whilst a similarly sorrowful, but more restrained, double bass is introduced, as to ground these experimental explorations in a more disciplined foundation. Indeed, whether it be the borderline classical guitar work of When I Am Slow, which is used to accompany imagery of a similarly highbrow standard, or the dramatic tone shift in the middle of Greatness Yet To Come, which reflects the singer’s attempts to navigate the misty dreamscapes of the lyrics, the techniques employed by Elkington to maintain a poetic interconnectedness between his lyrics and his music potently aid the listener’s ability to understand and engage with his poignant portraits of both the natural world and other dimensions.
With a palpable reverence for folk music that is as rich as the luxurious timbre across the album, James Elkington puts the traditions of English folk music to work on Wintres Woma, in a way that sees a vivid melding of motifs and mechanics, as to craft a powerful portrayal of hazy hypnopompia. With each texture of the record’s sonic palette and each layer of its lyrical allusions comes a heightened sense of immersion into the mystical, unseen powers of Elkington’s world on Wintres Woma. Although the singer takes clear cues from numerous artists and styles, these influences are not employed liberally, rather they are utilised very carefully, in such a way as to decorate each of these songs with their own unique shading. This can come in the form of anything from explicit variations in instrumental choices or more nuanced contrasts that relate to structure, sound or style. Whilst juggling all of these sources of inspiration, Elkington nevertheless manages to cogently assimilate a character of his own into many of these compositions, making for a folk record that may seem familiar on the surface, but the more time spent with it will reveal more and more subtleties in execution that transcend its overt stylistic touchstones.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10