It’s folk music Jim, but not as we know it…
When the weight of the world presses down with its suffocating pressure, it is most likely to produce endlessly mundane seams of coal, more so than give forth the creation of the odd defiant diamond. An examination of Jim Moray’s career would reveal a similar correlation between the weight of critical expectation and the resulting product. Mr Moray’s first album proper, Sweet England, was U.K. folk album of the year in 2003, and both critically and publicly heralded as a landmark on the folk landscape, akin to the towering majesty of Fairport Convention’s Liege and Leaf.
Mr Moray’s self-titled second album was a claustrophobic and difficult work, the production not so much ‘an everything but the kitchen sink’ panorama, but more a ‘can we mic the kitchen sink and get some reverb on it’, a complex maze of dark, impenetrably troubled and over-wrought folk songs, almost in denial of their roots. This difficult second album was heralded by the slavering critics of Sweet England with a collective cold shoulder. While this second album is not without its challenges, it certainly has a grandiose pop charm, and can repay repeated investigation; perhaps the second album is better viewed as a relation of Elton John’s (!) Madman Across the Water or the Guillemot’s last album, Red. However, in the resulting attention vacuum, the critical gaze has shifted on to all things Unthank, as the best place for the smart money to reside, for those critics wishing to bet on folk futures.
It is with some joy that I can report that Mr Moray has made a major return to the deft inventive restraint of Sweet England’s innovation without superfluous complication.
Before moving on to the songs, and their treatment, I have to pause and worship at the footstool of Mr Moray’s production abilities: to these aging ears, he is the producer of contemporary folk music nonpareil. Quite what technical stardust he uses to make even the most benign acoustic guitars bedazzle and enchant I know not, but he casts a bewitching sonic alchemy over all he records. On "Black Joak", the recent Mother of All Morris compilation album track, he conjures up accordions that heave and bellow like super charged behemoths, swooping, whooping, and time changing like out of control monster trucks on ecstasy.
The instrumentation on Low Culture is drawn from the eclectic pallet used on so many modern records that inhabit the folk idiom: marimba, kora, thumb piano, hurdy gurdy, double bass, violin, mandolin, melodeon, concertina etc, though perhaps it would be quicker to identify what instruments are not heard on this record in some way. We end up with a richly textured, organic record, with Mr. Moray’s sweetly expressive voice giving a modern edge to these mainly traditional folk ballads. Use of the word ‘mainly’ in the previous sentence being a clichéd set up for me to discuss the non-traditional songs: the monster being the ‘back to the future’ cover of XTC’s "All of You Pretty Girls", where Mr Moray sets his flux capacitors to stun and captures pure joy. The cobblestone chorus and Hovis brass band sing-along arrangement (and if you are in advertising and have something to sell this summer, license this track now) transform Andy Partridge's post-punk hit into a skewered, post-modern sea shanty, that is both fiendishly clever and infernally catchy.