Monday, November 16, 2009

leading up to tristram / folk music

Let me preface the next music post, which will concentrate on the best young musician I’ve encountered so far this year – Tristram - with the kind of weary complaint you’ll often hear from people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they’re old enough to know better. The complaint is this: over my years of gig going (which, actually, I’ve been chronicling over here) I’ve seen enough scenes begin and end to have got pretty good at recognising the tipping point – where the joyful originality of the first wave of performers (who might decide to take as their starting ground the work of, say, The Kinks or the Pretty Things, Black Sabbath or Talking Heads) gives way to the clumsy, plodding fare of less talented followers; the second and third wave of artists who pick up a fashionable sound but wield it clumsily, missing the dynamic that made their immediate forebears effective.

The sound which has dominated indie rock in the UK and the US for the last few years is drawn – however unlikely this might have seemed five years ago - from folk (and, to a lesser extent, country) music; from Karen Dalton and Nick Drake through to The Band and John Fahey. And we’re now at a point where it is positively de rigour for every young band to have a xylophone and a ukulele, and to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Noah and the Whale, Jeffrey Lewis and Bon Iver by creating delicate, mournful and precise folk music.

There are literally dozens of musicians who do this terribly well. Too many. Take William Fitzsimmons, a hugely talented but underappreciated American songwriter whose new album contains a set of deeply personal, overwrought marvels, run through with a sorrowful beauty every bit as rich as Bon Iver’s. Or the likes of Fanfarlo or The Leisure Society, both of whom make lovely, homespun indie-folk which, for all their skill, may not be original enough to set them apart.

Others, meanwhile, do it really badly. There are a number of Brighton-based singer-songwriters, often to be found on ostensibly decent bills, whose crass, myopic takes on Dylan’s troubadour shtick are faintly agonising to listen to – the folk music equivalent of those awful, unimaginative bands – rhyming ‘treason’ with ‘reason’ - that briefly dominated the tail end of Britpop.

And then there are charming bands consisting of mere kids, who play far better than their tender years imply, and so unselfconsciously in the style of, say, Noah and the Whale, because folk music has been de rigour for most of their teenage lives.

Had I been 16 in 2009, I would doubtless be doing the same. But I was 16 in 1993, so I played in a grunge rock band. Three years later and it would have been different.

Scenes offer tremendous appeal to young musicians and music fans; they offer a warm, welcoming safety blanket and a spirit of mutual exchange and discovery. I’ve watched scenes from a distance (shoegaze, grunge), participated half-heartedly or over-enthusiastically in others (riot grrrl, britpop), and found something to love in nearly all of them. But every single one, in the end, turns to shit. The joy of discovering new music consists largely of finding beauty in unexpected places; the moment beauty – even genuine beauty – becomes predictable, it loses some of its shine. That day always comes.

In the meantime, however, the fact that it is possible to walk from one’s flat down to a local venue and discover, completely unexpectedly, someone as warm, wonderful and winning as Tristram, is a very lovely fact indeed. So, next music post: a complete recording of his live set – worth treasuring.

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