It’s a bit late – and a bit different – this year. Folk Witness wasn’t as active in 2015 as it has been in previous years (something we hope to remedy in 2016), but there was still plenty to listen to. When it came to album of the year time, however, two stood out. And, this year, it proved impossible to choose one over the other. And why should we?
Olivia Chaney‘s The Longest River was a long time in the making. Launched in May – with one of the finest live shows FW has ever attended – it followed an EP that was released in 2012, and years of interviews that often began with the question: ‘so… when’s the album coming out?’.
Evidently, Chaney was focusing on getting it right. Versions of the already wonderful Imperfections and The King’s Horses from the EP are here, tweaked gently but for the better. Meanwhile, those who had seen her live were at last able to get their hands on recorded versions of Waxwing and Too Social.
There’s just one traditional song on the album – Chaney baulks at the suggestion she is a folk singer – but the opener, a take on the False Bride, shows her to be an elegant interpreter. Its mournfulness and tasteful arrangement sets the tone for an album of wistfulness and sorrow, piano and cello.
Chaney expertly turns her hand to songs by Alasdair Roberts, Violeta Parra and Henry Purcell, but her songwriting, too, is first class. Her classical sophistication lends weight to her crisp, witty insights into everyday life: holidays, relationships, and busy house-shares. It might seem extravagantly absurd to base a song on the ‘in denial/in the Nile’ dad joke, but Swimming in the Longest River is nonetheless soberingly, devastatingly beautiful. She could probably turn the Birdie Song into something moving.
The Longest River combines exquisite sadness with a knowing exoticism. But never is it unapproachable – indeed, it’s an intimate, warm record too. Albums as beautiful as this are worth waiting for.
Both Sam Carter and Jim Moray had shown hunts of a predilection for loud electric guitar in their solo work, but the formation of False Lights (who we saw live back in February) allowed them to really cut loose. The resulting album, Salvor, helped the band add something genuinely new to the folk scene – turning the ‘folk-rock’ genre on its head. If the way to keep traditional songs alive is to make them relevant, then a truly contemporary rock approach was sorely lacking.
A great idea, then – but actually pulling it off was another matter. Salvor does it with the kind of musical eloquence we’ve come to expect from Carter and Moray – not forgetting the contribution of Sam Nadel, Tom Moore, Nick Cooke and Jon Thorne, of course.
So, we have Polly from the Shore sounding a little like OK Computer-era Radiohead, while there are hints of Johnny Marr about The Banks of Newfoundland. The blistering Skewball, meanwhile, has a whip-crack sensibility that is all False Lights’ own. And that’s important – this isn’t ‘folk songs in the style of…’, it’s modern, forward-thinking stuff, best exemplified by the album’s opening and closing tracks – the clever, loop-heavy Wife of Usher’s Well and the euphoric pop of Crossing the Bar.
The ‘rock’ sound doesn’t steamroller the music’s essential folkyness, mind. Moore’s fiddle and Cooke’s melodeon stay prominent in the mix. Witness the dextrous Charlesworth Hornpipe, or the mournful, beautiful Indian’s Petition. Or, for that matter, the essential cheekiness of Tyne of Harrow and the bawdy-yet-classy Maid of Australia. It’s quite an album. Salvor is new, old, traditional, modern… and vital.
So, there you have it – our first joint winners. And while Olivia Chaney and False Lights may not have a great amount in common, it’s genuinely thrilling to note that both The Longest River and Salvor are debut albums. Bring on those follow-ups…