Red River Dialect
, September 4th, 2012 06:05
Rob Young's excellent book Electric Eden charted the development of a very specific strain of British folk and folk-rock; one largely focussed on the psychedelically-informed late sixties revival exemplified by early Fairport Convention, Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Comus and Nick Drake. Some criticised it for being far too subjective and idiosyncratic in its choices, presenting a somewhat skewed and prejudiced view of the movement's development; yet the story told in Electric Eden only reflects the wider revisionism at work in the fashionable enthusiasm for bringing folk influences back into contemporary music over the past few years. Put simply, the emphasis on Ye Olde Weird Anglia, and yet another re-imagining of the Wicker Man soundtrack, ignores a broad swathe of more traditional British folk-rock bands that, while far from cool, remain in rude health, playing to enthusiastic audiences in halls and on the heath where hipsters often fear to tread.
Red River Dialect are interesting in that they appear to fuse this traditional strain of inclusive, rabble-rousing folk rock with more adventurous, psychedelic influences that place them right at the genre's cutting edge. Championed by no less a personage than Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny, the Cornish five-piece (recently expanded to a sextet upon relocation to Brighton), are obviously neither bandwagon-jumping dilettantes nor finger-in-the-ear luddites, but experienced musicians and long-term enthusiasts whose fusion of styles is always in service of the song: that is, organic and natural, and not just a grafting on of sonic tinsel to a worn-out chassis. And although this is singer-guitarist David Morris and electric guitarist Simon Drinkwater's second album as Red River Dialect, it's the first to be fleshed out by a full band, allowing them the opportunity to paint on a wider canvas. The results are mostly thrilling; but occasionally the temptation to shift into epic gear can lead the band towards, if never quite into, a fall.
Opener 'Dawn's Man' is typical; as Morris's scything acoustic guitar is matched by Drinkwater's chiming electric peals, Ed Sander's violin adds emphasis and the rolling, rumbling bass and drums of Jack Kindred-Boothby and Hugh Cowling drive the whole thing forward, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with the folk-inflected 'Big Music' of classic '80s Waterboys. Partly it's the similarity, in tone and phrasing, between Morris's voice and Mike Scott's, but it's also the grand, widescreen arrangements and the impassioned, Yeatsian nature poetry of the lyrics. None of this is necessarily a bad thing - the Waterboys may hardly be a fashionable name to drop at this point in time, but to these ears this surprising muscularity and intensity is infinitely preferable to the wispy, whimsical tweeness of so much watery nu-folk. And midway through, the song breaks down into an acoustic finger-picking passage that builds gradually back up into a sprawling, murky psych-folk coda that turns any suspicions of Celt-rock conservatism on their heads.
With Drinkwater's ringing, effects-laden tones leading the way, 'Appleseed' starts to sound like a folk-infused Television, Morris's mumble and whine vocals as much Verlaine as Scott, before Drinkwater takes off on a barbed, twisting 'Marquee Moon' solo, albeit much more economical. 'Lion Walks Among' starts off in a loping, Tinariwen-like groove, bringing an appropriate hint of African desert blues to a Fairportesque British raga, and on 'Tavy Cleave' a shimmering electric psychedelic prologue gives way to an acoustic strum, with dark cello running through like a seam of coal in the wild landscape that Morris mediates upon in the lyrics, before the tune opens up into tendrils of fiery wah wah guitar and tribal toms and echo. Here and elsewhere Drinkwater's shimmering guitar playing recalls that of the lost guitar hero of early 90s indie rock, Terry Bickers - both the savage melodicism of early House of Love and the freeform intensity of Levitation, who this piece finally evokes, alongside current psych-drone master Sun Araw.
'On It Burns' adds country-rockabilly rhythms to the mix, Morris cramming his lyrics of doubt and faith into the lines like a man with more on his mind than he can express in the space-time provided, racing and tumbling to get the essence of it out. In contrast, 'Lintle' is a melancholy, drifting drone, circling red hot coals of percussion. But at heart the piece is no less urgent; alive and tense, it burns and flickers, the guitar lines sharp and uncoiling like barbed wire. The harmonica and wah-wah charged 'Cockerel f'the Moon' is a smoky, claustrophobic piece of venom that recalls The The, circa Infected, as it lays into some fraudulent crusty would-be revolutionary and his credulous followers: "Hey Long John Silver, shit or get off the pot." And 'Summers in Flight' comes the closest, finally, to being a British Arbouretum, fusing folk-rock with the primal dream-drone of Galaxie 500 or cusp-of-the-nineties Sonic Youth; churning, building, rising and receding like the tide, before hitting an electrifying Daydream Nation climax.
Awellupontheway fuses folk-rock's past with its future, carrying forward the energy, urgency and melody that has long served the form well, and merging it with the more experimental, avant-garde approach of some of our most exciting guitar bands. Their earnestness and weakness for the grand gesture may threaten at times to unseat them, but there's nothing hollow or bombastic here, and clichés are mostly avoided, along with pretentiousness and impenetrability. Red River Dialect is a language open to all.