Album: Jim Moray, Low Culture (Niag/Cadiz)
Friday 25 July 2008
"Trad./ Arr. David Owen" runs the design credit for the pulp fiction paperbacks that adorn the cover of Jim Moray's third album.
Sandwiched between respectable vintage Penguins, these sleazily vibrant images make Moray's point that the folk music he has been making since his landmark debut Sweet England (2003) is low, pop culture, not the prissy, academic kind.
Though folk has theoretically returned to the mainstream in recent years as alt.folk, the term mostly signalled a revival of drippy singer-songwriters. Only a few, such as Alasdair Roberts, try to take on the stark verities of traditional British folk songs. And Moray differs even from them by stapling such songs to modern pop forms. He's continuing Fairport Convention's folk-rock experiment, and Low Culture comes closer to success even than Sweet England. "Lucy Wan", the tale of a brother murdering his sister, pregnant by him, is its long centrepiece. English border pipes, concertina and hurdy-gurdy are met by Moray's programmed sounds. And his sweet English voice gives way to Ghanaian-British rapper Bubbz, portraying the outraged, blood-stained brother, lying to his mother, plotting his escape. The murder weapon is a broadsword and the confrontation ends in a castle, but Bubbz's self-justifying anger and fear mean you could overlay a council-estate front room, English past and present meeting easily. As Moray sings on Bella Hardy's modern folk song "Three Black Feathers", "The moon is ever, ever watching/ For this is only one man's story/ Within the tale of many men."
The sheer surreal weirdness folk was capable of, which so fascinated Dylan, is ignored by Moray. In any other context, he might be a conventional, mainstream figure, but the bottomless trove of sturdy old folk tales, and his musical imagination, spark brightly. "Rufford Park Poachers" preaches "the poacher's right to break the keeper's bones", a timeless class-rebel cry. XTC's "All You Pretty Girls" becomes a brass-band sea-shanty. "Fanny Blair" settles for jazz sax as vengeance is sworn from the gallows on an 11-year-old "perjuring whore". But Moray's biggest leap from the spectral profundity of his rival Roberts is "I'll Go List With a Sailor", which, with lines such as: "If you don't knock off, I'll scuttle your knob," could have come from Round the Horne's Rambling Syd Rumpo. There isn't much lower, or better, culture than that.
Pick of the album:'Lucy Wan', 'Fanny Blair', 'Rufford Park Poachers'
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