With five strikingly original and accomplished albums behind him, Jim Moray is rightly touted as one of the foremost standard-bearers of twenty-first-century folk music, but his relationship with the genre isn’t an easy one. Brought up on pop, punk, and rock, he sees traditional music through a different prism than your average folk apologist. His reading of the genre is both more and less subtle than that of many of his peers. More in that he requires the listener to be able to see his music from many different angles at once and to leave behind any snobbishness and musical prejudice they may have. Less in that the end result is often a form of music that possesses a crystalline formal simplicity that comes from Moray’s pop sensibility and punkish, often brash lack of respect for outmoded forms.
Put simply, Moray is an agent of deconstruction, and his target is the stuffy traditionalism, the one-eyed parochialism that can infiltrate the folk music scene, particularly in the British Isles. For him, folk music should be democratic and constantly in flux, and should both reflect and question its political, cultural and social backdrop. All too often traditional music ends up as an anachronism, reflecting the very conservatism it purports to deplore.
On Upcetera, Moray’s sixth album, the targets remain. Indeed, his crusade now seems more important than ever, at least in a political sense. But as always with Moray, his line of attack has shifted. Whereas in the past he has delivered folk songs through the refractive surfaces of electronica, or Britpop, or even Grime, Upcetera takes inspiration from modern composition – the minimalism of Reich or Reilly in particular – mixed with an unconventional take on chamber pop. The resulting work is discernably folk music, but it is folk music that seems to have been passed through stained glass. The majority of the songs are Roud or Child ballads, but the readings of these ballads are unlike any you will have heard before. Opener Fair Margaret And Sweet William, for example, is carried on an insistent, minimal piano figure before being swept away by kinetic percussion and bracing strings – think the blustery chamber pop of Divine Comedy’s Tonight We Fly or a more frantic Belle and Sebastian.
William Of Barbary‘s string section first points at more traditional roots, but the song is soon turned upside down by a decidedly rock-based combination of drums and electric guitar. In fact, much of the album’s atmosphere is created by the ostensibly ‘classical’ instruments and their ‘rock’ counterparts, or more precisely how these two apparently opposed factions play off each other to create an appealing and enigmatic musical tension.
Another Man’s Wedding slows the pace and gives centre stage to Moray’s voice, which has the transportative quality of the great blue-eyed soul singers. Again the strings provide the bedrock, and across the album the string section plays a huge part in setting the scene (cellist Jo Silverston featured on the recent Apple Of My Eye release and violinist Anna Jenkins has worked with The Unthanks).
Moray does occasionally veer towards what we might call classic folk rock, as in Edward Of The Lowlands, whose guitars bear some resemblance to Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. But the arrangement is altogether more stripped back, and it becomes a fitting tribute to Louis Killen’s immensely expressive version, while also sharing a certain rawness with Alasdair Roberts’ electric guitar based songs. There is a brisk rendering of Eppie Moray, which adds a very modern clarity to the emotional depth given to the song by Ewan Maccoll’s well-known version.
The first of two Moray originals, the piano-led The Straight Line And The Curve has roots going back to the sixteenth century, and in particular the cosmogonic writings of John Dee, the court astrologer to Elizabeth I. The other Moray composition, Sounds Of Earth, also deals with the subject of the cosmos and how we converse with it and live amongst its sounds, as well as the much more personal mythology of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Then there is a re-reading of Foggy Dew which manages to be simultaneously evocative and forward-looking.
But the albums heftiest punches come in the final rounds. Penultimate song The Flying Cloud is a schooner shanty held aloft by Liam Byrne’s stately viola da gamba. Vocally it is a tour de force, with Moray sailing close to sentimentality but never crossing the line as he manages to cram a tale of almost novelistic detail into under seven minutes. Staying on the nautical theme, closing track Lord Franklin is the well-known dream narrative describing Franklin’s quest to find the Northwest Passage, a quest that eventually ended in disaster. Moray’s version is superficially similar to the well-known recordings by Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, and John Renbourn. But the subtly shifting acoustic guitar and strings breathe new life into the song, and once again the soulful singing elevates it to another level.
Upcetera’s cover shows a photo of Moray, an intense look of concentration on his face, holding a longbow and taking aim at a target somewhere out of shot. It is a fitting visual metaphor for an artist whose mission has come to be defined by a focused iconoclasm, a willingness to take on what he believes are outmoded forms of expression and beat them at their own game, with their own weapons. But perhaps more importantly, Moray is a performer of consummate talent, a musician who plays a whole range of instruments on this album (he contributes a bit of everything, from drums to vibraphone to ukulele), and a singer of rare emotional depth. That he manages to do all this while forging a bright new path for folk music is admirable. That he has done so over six albums and still seems to be hitting his peak while never doing the same thing twice is remarkable.
Upcetara is Out Now via NIAG records
Listen to the full album on Spotify:
Jim Moray Tour Dates
21st HARTLEPOOL FOLK FESTIVAL, HARTLEPOOL
4th THE LIBERAL CLUB, ORPINGTON
5th WINEMAKERS CLUB, LONDON
6th VICTORIA HALL, SETTLE
9th THE MUSICIAN, LEICESTER
11th ST MARY’S CREATIVE SPACE, CHESTER
18th EXETER FOLK AND ACOUSTIC CLUB, EXETER
19th EVERYMAN THEATRE, CHELTENHAM
20th HITCHIN FOLK CLUB, HITCHIN
25th NORWICH FOLK CLUB, NORWICH
9th SHELLEY THEATRE, BOURNEMOUTH