Fans of the young and folksy contingent in music—which seems to be growing in numbers, like so many rolls of hay from a baler—will be content to fall asleep under a stack, sans horn, with the full-length debut from U.K. artist Johnny Flynn. Released in the U.S. in late July, A Larum is the latest from a community of music-makers from across the pond cutting albums in the British folk style. Happily, Flynn’s effort possesses qualities that make it more than a refashioning of the past—if the album is a romp through English town and country, which it is, it also points to a distant, sun-warmed field where you can lay down your head and meditate not only on what has befallen you, but on all that awaits you down the line.
This is something akin to the feeling that Flynn and his band, the Sussex Wit, provide on an album that is literarily mysterious, idyllic, and dramatic without seeming totally detached from the present and all its predicaments. The group creates a haven of promise hovered by experience with songs that pay tribute to written records of the loved and lost (and their combustibility), the armed ghosts of Hong Kong Cemetery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Cemetery),
anthropomorphic portraits (“I’m a plough and you’re a furrow / I’m a fox and you’re a burrow”), the geometry of railroad shacks, Hattie Carroll, and the consciousness of being and shedding more than one person in a lifetime. With such a rich bed of imagery shoring up his first album, it is certain that future works from Flynn will prove him to be a great storyteller—an essential fact of the great performer-songwriter that isn’t entirely evident on A Larum. (While the poems in the songs come fast and furious, they don’t always amount to an emotional expression of innocence, tomfoolery, tragedy, and wisdom, as, say, a Tom Waits number does.)
Fully on display is Flynn’s musicianship. Many of the album’s fourteen tracks keep a tempo that is swift without seeming slight. From track to track, plucked and splayed strings, barroom choruses, spare harmonies, harmonica, horns, and percussion come together in arrangements that find the right conductor in Flynn, whose voice is just wayward enough to pull off the album’s roaming persona. Some of the songs stand alone, and even the ones that heavily remind you of the talents of others—Langhorne Slim (an American folk contemporary), Emma Tricca (a British folk contemporary), Ray Davies, early David Bowie, and a few Romantics and Victorians come to mind—are a pleasure to hear, because they are sung and played with the air of someone who is eager to learn from what others have done well.
Of the range of new folk albums coming out of the U.K. and the U.S., A Larum is one of the more promising, because Flynn and his band seem to be aiming for something more than a helping of obscure lyrics and antiqued sounds. If this album is any indication, they’re a generous group with room for growth. Haystack nappers everywhere rejoice.
Johnny Flynn is performing at the Bowery Ballroom on September 15.