False Lights – Harmonograph
Wreckord Label – 2 February 2018
In the world of folk and roots music, collaborations don’t get much bigger and better than this. Sam Carter is a London-based singer-songwriter and guitarist who has been compared to Roy Harper, Nic Jones and John Martyn, and whose recent output has garnered praise from press and peers alike, with the Guardian calling him ‘impressively original’ and Bellowhead’s Jon Boden describing him as ‘the finest English-style fingerpicking guitarist of his generation.’ He has worked with artists as diverse as Zimbabwean singer Lucky Moyo, Bellowhead fiddler Sam Sweeney and Canadian singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan. In 2010 he was named best newcomer at the BBC Folk Awards.
Six years earlier Jim Moray picked up the same award and has gone on to become one of the most widely respected writers and interpreters of song on the folk circuit, while also lending his considerable talents as a producer and arranger to albums by Jackie Oates, Belshazzar’s Feast and Chris Foster. The pair first came together as False Lights on 2015’s Salvor, and anyone who heard that album – described in these pages as a ‘vibrant reboot of folk rock’ – will be delighted to know that they have recorded a follow-up.
To make the observation that Harmonograph brings together ten folk songs, all of which have some kind of contemporary significance, is true enough. But it doesn’t do False Lights justice. What both of these artists share, aside from their obvious musical talents, is a genuinely experimental edge. From the very first notes, this album displays a willingness – perhaps even a need – to take risks, to completely dislocate songs from their traditional zones of reference. Straight away, in the staticy squall of the first few seconds of Babylon, we are forced into a realm far removed from any comfortable notions of folk music. The track kicks itself along with a punky drum beat (the work of Stuart Provan) until the massed vocals of the exhilaratingly simple chorus carry the whole thing over into gloriously messy psych-folk territory while the cacophonous conclusion is in itself a brilliant piece of musical theatre, like (and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way) a folk-rock Flash Gordon. It works brilliantly, both as a song in its own right and as a slap in the face for anyone thinking that this album was going to be a staid and restrained affair.
They follow it up with a version of Black Velvet Band, a sinuous, muscular take on a song we normally hear done with a certain jauntiness. Here the element of warning in the lyrics is brought to the fore. Again, the arrangement emphasises the power of the chorus: the chords are thunderous, the lead guitars as sharp as spears. William Glenn is ostensibly closer to what we might call traditional folk-rock – that of the Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span blueprint. But the insistent dots and dashes of guitar owe more to post-rock than anything else, and again the arrangement allows for a thrilling denouement: the song drops off a musical cliff-edge before taking flight in a renewed clamour.
Instrumental The Ombudsman serves up some intricate, African-inspired guitar, which mingles with a flighty fiddle line before the driving, cascading rhythm section catches up, and the track becomes a folk-rock stomp. Far In Distant Lands is more reflective, allowing the duo to examine the personal tragedy of the geographical displacement of human beings in the twenty-first century through the universalising lens of traditional song. It is perhaps the album’s most stately moment, beautifully sung, with a hymn-like quality that conveys the gravity of the subject matter.
One of the constantly surprising facets of Harmonograph is the way the songs seem to consume themselves and re-emerge in entirely different forms. Captain Kidd begins as a melodeon and acoustic guitar-led ballad before transforming, a third of the way in, into a battering ram of heavy psych-folk. These switches are so well-managed and so well-timed that they are somehow simultaneously startling and expected. Elsewhere, the guitars resemble Rust Never Sleeps-era Crazy Horse, as on Murder In The Red Barn (also well-known as The Murder Of Maria Marten, in a version by Shirley Collins), a grungy hoedown whose gruesome subject is belied by a percussive jingle.
Serving Man Become A Queen is, in places, almost pure pop – the handclaps in the opening verses in particular – while the fluid electric guitar in the chorus is straight out of Britpop. There is a cheeky organ vamp, a neat passage of fiddle, and too many other interesting shifts and shimmies to mention, and that’s before you get onto the song’s lyrics: it’s one of those gender-bending ballads from three hundred-odd years ago that makes you question just how enlightened our own age is.
Henry Martin, an old Scottish song of a young man forced into piracy, gets a whole new twist. The intro toys with African percussive rhythms before the song veers off into jazzy and at times almost progressive territory, with unusual time signatures fastened down with incredibly tight musicianship. Closing track Drink Old England Dry dates back to the Napoleonic wars at the very least, but its treatment of Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours says something quite different in the current political climate. It is a timely reminder of how a good folk song can speak to us down the ages. But perhaps more important than that, it is a timeless, rowdy drinking song, superbly performed by both singers (Moray and Carter trade verses). It shows that good music, even if it carries a political message, can be enjoyed on its own terms, in a spirit of collaboration and celebration. And that is what the immense appeal of this album boils down to in the end. The harmonograph from which the album gets its name is an instrument that creates apparently complex geometric shapes using two balanced pendulums. If we are to suppose that the pendulums represent Carter and Moray, the picture that they have created is fittingly detailed, truly collaborative, varied and often beautiful. It is the work of two modern masters in perfect harmony.
False Lights Live Dates
21 Feb – London The Water Rats
24 Feb – Lichfield Lichfield Arts Centre
16 Mar – Sale Waterside Arts Centre
20 Apr – Oxford Folk Weekend
06 May – Raunds Music Festival Northants
22 Jun – Beardy Folk Festival, Shropshire
06 Jul – Folk At The Hall, Trelawnyd, Flintshire
08 Aug – Sidmouth Folk Week
For tickets and more details visit: falselights.co.uk
Pre-Order Harmonograph via the False Lights shop here.