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VARIOUS Weirdlore: Notes from the Folk Underground CD (Folk Police)

Weirdlore is a superb compilation of alternative folk music that cannot be ignored by anyone with even the vaguest interest in this genre. The CD features artwork by Dom Cooper of the Rif Mountain collective, also known for his work with The Owl Service and The Straw Bear Band (the latter of whom are included on this compilation). There are extensive sleeve notes, including an introduction by Ian Anderson, editor of fRoots magazine and founder of 1970s label Village Thing, one of the first labels to use the term 'alternative folk' to describe its output. Ian Anderson is also a musician and songwriter, and his band The False Beards also put in an appearance on the compilation.

Jeanette Leech, author of the psych-folk history Seasons They Change, provides an essay charting the changing perceptions of folk music over the last decade or so, seeing it move from a genre considered hopelessly unfashionable to a genre that anybody who was anybody was namechecking or getting directly involved in. More recently, it would appear from this essay, the fickle fashion police have decided they want nothing more to do with folk again. As someone for whom the mainstream music press is entirely irrelevant, and someone who hasn't cared less about what is fashionable since childhood, I can't say I'd noticed. But it doesn't surprise me at all that the widespread enthusiasm for folk proved to be a mere fad: after all, fads are what drive mainstream music.

Taking folk away from the limelight has seen the bandwagon jumpers move on to whatever else is flavour of the month, leaving folk these days to be made by a core of dedicated enthusiasts who aren't bothered about what is trendy, and who are putting their own individual stamp on the genre in a way that is often odd and experimental but not self-consciously so. This is the music of people who are simply being themselves outside of the confines of conformity and faddishness, an approach that I personally feel is the only one that is conducive to producing honest, genuine music. To find honest, genuine music, you have to scratch the surface and explore the underground. Weirdlore, as a snapshot of the current folk underground, is an ideal place to start.

The album begins with Telling the Bees' excellent song Worship of Trees, which is tinged with aspects of classical music and Eastern European folk and shows a very high level of musicianship. Lyrically it is just one of a number of tracks on the album that explore Pagan, magical, mythological and folkloric themes, as will be seen. Emily Portman's Spine of a Wave is really something special. There are traditional influences to be heard here but also an idiosyncratic and original songwriting skill that reveals Emily Portman to be a superbly talented artist. I must definitely seek out more from her if this song is anything to go by.

Rapunzel and Sedayne, who also record as Venereum Arvum, set the traditional song The Innocent Hare to hypnotic psych-folk accompaniment. Nancy Wallace, known for her solo material as well as her involvement with The Memory Band and The Owl Service, contributes Walking into Walls, a very enjoyable example of contemporary folk songwriting. Pamela Wyn Shannon appears with Moss Mantra, in which she recites names and descriptions of different kinds of moss over a backdrop of dreamlike psych-folk. Katie Rose's Witches' Reel is an effective combination of three songs sharing lyrical themes: a 16th century chant collected during the witch trials, a modern chant popular at Pagan festivals, and Katie's own adaptation of 9th century poem The Lament of the Cailleach of Beare. These are accompanied by a creative combination of shamanistic drumming, piano, droning strings, and a crackling bonfire.

The False Beards have a guitar and mandolin driven piece that recalls 60s folk songwriting. Foxpockets' Grendel is a delightfully off-centre folk romp with lyrical imagery reminiscent of the more gruesome fairy tales. Boxcar Aldous Huxley make an eccentric form of predominantly instrumental music based on assorted brass and woodwind instruments, banjo, crashing cymbals and musical saw. Sproatly Smith's rendition of the traditional song Rosebuds in June is accompanied by a variety of instruments such as cello, mandolin and organ, along with assorted clattering and jangling metallic sound effects. It's both inventive and beautiful.

The Straw Bear Band's Black Hive is great folk-rock with droning bee noises. Starless and Bible Black's contribution has a remarkably full sound for just guitar, voice and minimal electronics. It has a certain ethereal, echoey nature that sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral, and is just as likely to appeal to fans of the dreampop/shoegaze scene as it is to followers of contemporary folk. Perhaps the best known artist here is Alasdair Roberts, whose Haruspex of Paradox is a vivid depiction of Loki, a morally ambiguous and yes, paradoxical, figure from Norse mythology. The sparseness of the music adds to the evocative atmosphere. Corncrow provide a superb atmospheric folk-rock version of Meriasek, a Cornish-language song written by Neil Kennedy and Simon Lockley.

Rosalind Brady, also of the duo Barron Brady, provides some contemporary songwriting with strong, soaring vocals and atmospheric, experimental use of dulcimer and harmonium. The Witches with Kate Denny contribute a brilliant version of Robin Williamson's Come with Me, which combines traditional influences with a certain off-centre nature. Harp and a Monkey provide a cheeky re-write of a traditional song about a cuckolded molecatcher, accompanied by an off-kilter combination of folk instruments, glockenspiel and burbling electronics. Wyrdstone, the project of multi-instrumentalist Clive Murrell, contributes the psych-folk instrumental Pucelancyrcan. Its title is an Anglo-Saxon place name deriving from 'puccel' or 'little goblin'.

Folk is one of the most traditional forms of music, but has paradoxically inspired some of the most original music to come out of the underground music milieu. This album shows that folk music today is far from stagnant, and is being made by extremely talented artists adding inventive new ideas to the genre. Weirdlore is an absolutely fantastic compilation that I heartily recommend. Further info at www.folkpolicerecordings.com


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Text Kim Harten, 2012.