‘[I am] the last of my kind/I am all that remains/Of voices and names/Of ritual, culture, language, and song’ declares the archetypal ‘Old Man’ in Track 4 of James Frost’s new E.P., Nameless; a collection of five songs in which history and nature are woven together and the personal and pastoral are projected against internal and external landscapes, each ‘at the mercy/[of their own kind of] weather’.
When discussing Bob Dylan & The Band’s iconoclast Basement Tapes, critic Greil Marcus posited the theory that the songs were, in essence, ‘palavers with a community of ghosts’; a lyrical and musical foray into ‘The Old, Weird America’. Likewise, with its frequent references to our primitive, primal origins, one could view this all too brief assortment of songs as being a spiritual companion by way of it being an exhibition to the heart of the ‘Olde, Weird England’. For instance, take both Visitors and Nomads, which together draw reference to a ‘time now unknown/[and] lands now forgotten’ , that are inhabited by ‘tribes/countless lives’ and ‘hunters’ clothed in ‘skins of deer/with animal spears’. Now consider the common geography of the songs, which is typically ‘out on the edges’, navigating the ‘wild places’ of English countryside:
Remember the cabin frozen in snow
And all of the deer that made it their home
Tinder and wood-smoke, shadow and light
The sound of sex in the echo of night.
The combination of the two would suggest that Frost is making a concerted effort to tap into the roots of English folk heritage; reaching for those forgotten times, rhymes, and cultures and laying them down song.
That is not to say that all songs are unanimously outward in their focus as, in this short collection, there are some incredibly personal touches and it is to great effect that such external tropes are stirred together, Frost’s internal monologues of love and loss. Pride, and its refrain, for example, is a heart-wrenching ballad, combining melody and sentiment as it combs through the wreckage of an old romance; finding each party’s many ‘faces’ and ‘stupid pride’. Moreover, standout track, Nameless unites this thematic dualism with its portrayal of a forest of both physical and metaphysical confines, serving again as an emblem for a past-relationship. Through a vivid pastoral we learn that the relationship, from its humble beginnings as ‘[an] acorn […] planted last spring/[that] had [their] name[s] carved in’ has now grown dense, and is a ‘canopy of shivering leaves’.
The chorus of:
If we were the only ones left
And this wood was ours
Would you leave it nameless
Or would you forever walk its paths?
inadvertently recalls Philosopher William Paley’s Watchmaker analogy whereby, in an attempt to prove the presence of a divine hand of creation, he compares the world to an intricate pocket watch. Here Paley reasons that should one discovers a pebble, or clod, cast by the road, reasonably, one may assume that the pebble had lay there for all time with no consequence as to its situation. However, should one discover a pocket watch, countless questions arise: who crafted it, why was it made, what is its purpose, et cetera. Likewise, in Frost’s revision, the former lover is asked that if they were to stumble upon this forest, would they consider it irrelevant and leave it nameless; or, alternatively, would they forever walk its paths in attempts to know it.
Presentation-wise, there are touches of the classic English folk heroes: notably the guitar playing of Nick Drake and John Martyn, with some modern studio embezzlements such as, the reverb-drenched piano of Pride. To this effect, perusing the list of influences listed on his Facebook Profile, one also cannot help but notice the reference to Conor Oberst & Bright Eyes and, in turn, trace passing similarities to some of Mike Mogis’ earlier productions. Whilst Frost’s effort is arguably sonically more refined, Fevers and Mirrors would be a good example by way of its blend of sparse guitar, simple percussion, female harmony, and ripples of flute. Elsewhere, the precise finger picking of Nameless is for swapped a discordant blues rag of Visitor & Rolling Thunder. Coming at the tail-end of the release, the pair form a noticeable change of approach to that of the opening three songs, and it will be most interesting to see how these two sounds would contest on a feature-length effort.
All things considered, if we return to the ‘Old Man’ of the opening quote, who felt he was ‘the last of his kind’, one can draw interesting comparisons to the ‘Old Man’ of Neil Young’s song of the self-same title. In the same way that Young’s narrative attempts to commune with the Old Man, stating that whilst they may be separated by age and circumstances, he really he is ‘a lot like [him]; then so too is Frost. Whilst this short collection is crying out for a full-length release, by drawing upon the ‘remains/Of voices and names/Of ritual, culture, language, and song’ Frost too is carrying on the age old folk tradition. Moreover, its distinctive English slant is refreshing in what is often an Americanised-medium, recalling the fact that St James Infirmary, was really in Piccadilly, and that it was Lord Randall who went a-roaming, long before the Blue-eyed son of A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall.
Review by: James Beedie
Out Now – Available via Bandcamp here: jamesfrost.bandcamp.com