James Elkington - Wintres Woma

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:2017-06-30

Henry David Thoreau instructed: “Simplicity.” (He actually said, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” But he was a pretty smart person so I took his advice.) James Elkington is an English guy living in Chicago. His resume includes records with The Zincs, Horse’s Ha (with Janet Bean), Nathan Salsburg, and the latter day Eleventh Dream Day. (That almost sounds like a religion I’d like!) Now, he has produced his solo album Wintres Woma (Sound of Winter). This album is a direct descendent to all of those classic English folk records by Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Ralph McTell, Nick Drake, and Michael Chapman. Yeah, it’s that good. And it’s that good with the songwriting, the guitar magic, an almost Kevin Ayers-like baritone voice, and lovely maverick spirit. There. That’s said. Simplicity!

Allow me to gush:

So the very first song, “Make It Up” starts the fret race. The guitar work is amazing and worthy of attention all by itself; but like those TV ads with an offer to double the order or provide free shipping, this album comes with the addition of that beautiful baritone, nice melodies, a bit of Telecasting Fender, and the upright bass of Nick Macri, all for no extra cost. Quite frankly, the whole thing reminds me of early John Martyn and those wonderful Island records. The same is true for the next song, “Hollow in Your House.” And this one has an echo of those great Anthony Phillips records with emotive vocals that erased any connection with Phil Collins and latter day Genesis. (That almost sounds like a religion I really need to avoid!)

It is, however, “Wading the Vapors,” that spins this album into something special. It starts with a Bert Jansch guitar bit, and then the music floats into that John Martyn (thank you Pharoah Sanders and Karma) jazzy dimensional drift. But oh my, then Tomeka Reid enters with a sincere cello and background vocals. And yes, that cello does recall similar drama from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.  Did I mention the guitar and vocal that levitates this music into the realm of weary yet very beautiful sadness? There are so many nice songs. The spritely “Grief Is Not Coming” has a guitar worthy of Ralph McTell’s ragtime playing. “When I Am Slow” is such a simple tune and is a clever take of introspective folk blues. Tomeka Reid returns with her cello to add drama to “The Hermit Census.” The same is true for “Greatness Yet to Come.” And the magical fret race continues through every song. There’s even a bit of banjo. “My Trade in Sun Tears” has a melody and lyric worthy of its poetic title. Finally, “Any Afternoon” finishes the album with a dreamy tune, a lovely electric guitar solo, and a simple message that asks the listener to “Take your time.”

It’s important to note that JE played on the new Michael Chapman 50 album and Richard Thompson’s Still. That’s the company he keeps. 

Just an idea: It’s odd. The blues idiom that couldn’t get arrested in mainstream America sailed across the Atlantic and planted itself in England. The best I can figure, Main Street America had a Folk Hootenanny Boom; we had a brief flirtation with Southern Allman Brothers rock, but we’re still waiting for our own Blues Boom. Let’s just say we have never given much thought to a national treasure like Sonny Boy Williamson, or for that matter, that other national treasure who was also known as Sonny  Boy Williamson. That’s a shame because the UK’s reverence and fascination with our blues certainly created a whole lot of love for great music. And all those Scottish and British players like Davey Graham, John Mayall, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Michael Chapman, and Nick Drake all tapped into this vein of deep blood in our blues and jazz tradition and then spliced it together with equally sacred Anglo-Saxon and Celtic roots. Think about John Renbourn and his journey from his first album’s cigarette down and out tough guy artwork to that of the later brass rubbed Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte. These artists dug deeply into traditions that will outlast the latest television singing sensation’s song that is always ready for instant download. Tradition is simply made of the stuff that survives, and those who tap into that stuff make music that continues to vibrate with the vitality of Slim Harpos’ “Shake Your Hips.” Yeah, and the world needs a good “Hip Shake” every once in a while.

By the way, does anybody remember the name of singer who won the America’s Got More Talent than Any Other Country in the Universe Contest just last year?

Now, allow me to stop gushing:

I’ve name-dropped quite liberally in this review in order to put James Elkington’s music in context, create interest, and perhaps, sell a few records. Of course, I also did it in some sort of last ditch attempt to give myself musical street cred that I always desired but somehow never achieved being just a Midwest American kid who likes beer, The Green Bay Packers, and still has a place in his heart for (and Can’t Get Enough of) Bad Company and Foghat. That aside, it’s difficult to place a value on this album. Sure, it’s a great listen. But James Elkington is swimming with a pantheon of pretty big English folk singer fish. And it is deep water. It’s deep murky water. It takes time to tell. It takes time to reveal true insight. Nick Drake’s poignant “Fruit Tree” belies its age. The same is true for John Martyn’s “Back to Stay,” Ralph McTell’s “Nana’s Song,” or Michael Chapman’s “You Say.” These are all important first album songs. It’s easy to measure the worth of music that has survived the years, persevering through countless reissues, re-masters, and even the addition of never before heard bonus tracks. These days, the sticker on the plastic wrap always says this album is, indeed, a classic we all missed way back then.

But this is a pretty great record that is here and now. And it doesn’t have a sticker that says it’s a classic.

So talk to me in twenty years’ time. Or better yet, I’ll check with the prophecies of Nostradamus, and I’ll probably have more to say. This album, Wintres Woma, delivers a very British glance at America, an America that needs its allies to help take a look at itself every once in a while just to see the beauty and greatness we have in our own history right in our own back yard. Ghosts of the past haunt this record, and once they are given a voice, I’ve found that those ghosts tend to stay around for a very long time.

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