While the press release rather disarmingly suggests that False Lights are the result of a late-night what-if conversation in a bar, the band also brings together some exceptional talents, fronted by Sam Carter and Jim Moray. Both are Folk Award winners in their own right, but have also demonstrated an appetite and capacity for collaboration, with Jim in particular becoming increasingly visible on the role of producer, while Sam has built on the early recognition that made him one of the chosen Emerging Artists In Residence at London’s South Bank Centre. Their debut album Salvor offers a vibrant re-boot of folk rock, which if anything outstrips the immediate excitement and expectations generated by this potent pairing.
Jim is one of those exceptional talents, whose debut album Sweet England won him both Album Of The Year and Best newcomer categories at the Folk Awards back in 2004. An instant classic, it did much to stir up the folk scene and easily stands the test of time. Whilst it would be hard to repeat that level of success, each subsequent release has attracted further nominations and wider acknowledgement in critics’ end of year selections, despite the fact that he hasn’t always followed the obvious course. His fourth album In Modern History, for example, was initially given away as a cover-mount CD with Songlines Magazine. The follow up, Skulk, arrived without fanfare on Bandcamp and still topped that outlet’s sales charts.
Sam’s Folk Award is more recent and he too was acknowledged as the most promising new comer winning the Horizon category in 2010. By then he’d already been acknowledged by London’s South Bank centre, which catapulted him into the same orbit as Bellowhead, with whom he subsequently toured. Jon Boden has remarked that Sam is the finest, English finger-style guitarist of his generation, an accolade supported by Mike Harding and Martin Simpson, who offered Sam some guidance and tuition. His two albums so far have also shown a remarkable maturity as a songwriter, while his collaborations have seen him play in Pakistan with renowned classical musicians, appear on Andrew Marr’s show with Zimbabwean singer Lucky Moyo and also benefit from an EFDSS Transatlantic exchange, working with Canadian Catherine MacLellan.
This talented pair has naturally attracted equals to their cause. Drummer Sam Nadal has a history of collaborations with Sam Carter, while melodeon player Nick Cooke has been a part of Jim’s band, as well as playing with Kate Rusby. The line up is completed by Tom Moore of Moore, Moss Rutter fame on violin and Jon Thorne, a mainstay of Lamb, but also a bassist with numerous collaborations under his belt. There are a couple of extras too, with Tom’s cohort Jack Rutter drafted in to play harmonica on one track and the trumpet of Nick Malcolm also making an appearance.
While Sam is known for his original songs, Jim is probably better known for his interpretations of the tradition. Although he has always mixed things up, adding songs by contemporaries and also penning things here and there, it’s interpretations like Earl Brand that are real highlights. It’s a big ballad and Jim delivers it with real style, getting to the emotional core of the heart-rending story. In the spirit of collaboration, it’s this course that they follow here, so it’s the folksong repertoire, Child Ballads and the Roud Index that gives False Light’s the majority of their material.
As much as Jim has an admirable grasp of the tradition, he’s always been an experimenter and innovator too. He was one of the first people I saw using loops and that performance stands out still as one of a handful where the technique really worked, largely because the songs remained the key. He’s also unafraid to shoulder an electric guitar and the fact that he can play keyboards as well is very much to their advantage. Sam meanwhile is rightly renowned as a picker and his acoustic guitar usually figures prominently, but even so, there is the odd track on his last album, The No Testament, proving he’s not afraid of amping it up.
Amping it up is what they do, but it’s not just over driven guitars – although they do naturally feature – there’s some real subtlety and some typically adventurous sonic manipulation from Jim. At one point it even had me recalling the Enosifications credit on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, although I guess that really needs to be Moraysifications in this case, for the extra sprinklings of sonic pixie dust that Jim applies to the mix.
There’s the weird sampled and manipulated voices and handclaps that set up the rhythm for the opening of The Wife Of Ushers Well. It’s both clever and works well in the context of the otherworldly tale of dead children returning to their mother. The whole song is given a strange jolting, almost dub style rhythm that gets a jolt of slashing guitar about half way through. Sam takes the lead vocally and his strong voice keeps a tight grip on the narrative. It’s to the credit of both Sam and Jim, that whilst the arrangements are peppered with the kind of detail that headphones were made for, the songs never lose their shape.
Polly On The Shore, sets off like something from mid-period Motown, before a gently rolling guitar arpeggio weaves a gentle trance around Sam’s vocal. There are two or three clever lifts, before the finale descends into a woozy, dreamy descent and surrender to the inevitable. There are ghostly echoes too in the start of The Banks Of Newfounland, another seafaring tale that boasts more chiming guitars and some tip-top harmonies too, charting a course somewhere between The Byrds, post R.E.M. Americana and bringing things a little closer to home, perhaps Oysterband, with added atmospheric interference.
The racing song Skewball is an almost straight ahead romp for the winning posts, given a prog-metal makeover, with guitars dripping harmonic distortion as the trail into infinity and some fleet fiddle. Charlesworth Hornpipe is therefore something of a surprise, played quite straight and putting the fiddle and box to the fore, it does none the less possess a thumping beat and has some excellent guitar work, with a neat breakdown, before launching towards the climax.
Featuring more of their excellent harmony vocal, The Indian’s Petition is slow, almost stately with a hint of a drone about it. How Can I Keep From Singing? has a little of the modern minimalism of primitivism about it, with just the melodeon supporting the massed choir of carefully layered voices. Tyne Of Harrow is another of those big ballads that Jim can get wrapped up in, even with it’s shifting, syncopated shuffle of a rhythm and odd five count, it’s tragedy and cruel fates unfolding over circling fiddle riffs. It’s one of two songs learnt from Peter Bellamy’s and second of those, the bawdy and fun The Maid of Australia is up next, that makes very light of it’s complex rhythms.
Oh Death is a kind of dislocated blues workout with more of those taught riffs spiralling away at the centre and is the most obvious rocker on the album, although that might suggest it’s comparatively simple, which it isn’t. It naturally sets up the hymnal Crossing The Bar, a setting of Tennyson’s words, by American Rani Arbo, which Sam brings home, although the tune and arrangement retain that country-gospel, Sunday-best flavour.
If only all such late-night bar conversations had such positive outcomes, the world would unquestionably be a better place. But given the pedigree of those involved it shouldn’t really come as any sort of surprise that Salvor is a superb CD. There’s no deception going on here, this is the real deal and in its own unique way a masterpiece. Their chosen name False Lights may refer to the doubtful legends of coastal folk luring ships to their doom, but this is more like a Bobby Dazzler! And if Salvor doesn’t add to their clutch of awards or at very least the general, righteous hubbub of acclaim for both Sam and Jim, then something is very wrong indeed. Exceptional!
Review by: Simon Holland
25/07 – Trowbridge, The Village Pump Folk Festival
21/08 – nr. Woodbridge, Folk East Festival
31/08 – Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Folk Festival
05/09 – Birmingham, Moseley Folk Festival
You can now order the album from Bandcamp with instant downloads.
The album comes in three levels :
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• A CD copy of Salvor, plus an instant download
• A deluxe package of Salvor on CD, plus an exclusive ‘Live At Folk East’ digital mini-album, plus an instant download