Gary Raymond takes a look at the debut album Week of Pines by Georgia Ruth Williams, an eclectic mix of covers, languages, folk and pop.
Folk music has been around a long time, obviously. What we recognise as British Folk now, the stuff brought to us by Fairport Convention and Pentangle et al in the sixties, is largely what we still have, and every time a couple of young attractive voices emerge that seem to fit the stable, music journalists are quick to talk of a revival. What they mean is: we keep forgetting how good it is because we concentrate, mainly, on hipster shit.
So, what is this folk music, really? The common threads are acoustic guitars, foliage and perhaps an old fashioned and somewhat naïve attention to nature’s place in the modern world. Folk is often parodied, patronised and disdained for its refusal to join the electronic revolution, for ignoring the nullified reverberations of punk and for (how dare it!) occasionally parking its tofu tanks on the lawns of pop’s marble palaces and reminding it of its melodic origins. The powers that be, however, are unlikely to treat folk music with the respect it deserves any time soon. We may be allowed to marvel at the prodigious talent of Laura Marling, but there isn’t room for many of her ilk. She is the sombre-faced conservatively-dressed college-kid token in the midst of the flesh-flashing dumb-assed mainstream. British folk music has never recovered from Sandy Denny falling down the stairs in 1978. But – and this is an important ‘but’ – it has gone on. Folk music always does.
The debut album from Aberystwyth’s Georgia Ruth Williams (although she is dropping the Williams from her artistic moniker) is a record that maybe wants to nudge into the sacred mainstream that Marling currently occupies with her Dylan-esque ballads and winks to Joni Mitchell. Week of Pines is a folk record with one eye on mainstream radio (and the single has succeeded in this). But Georgia Ruth most certainly comes from a different place. If Marling emerges from her older brother’s bedsit in her pedal pushers and mohair sweater with a vinyl copy of Bringing It All Back Home under her arm, Georgia Ruth seems to be walking slowly out of a woodland edge with flowers in her hair.
To indulge the crudest forms of music criticism for a moment; Williams has a keen sense of the significance of Denny – it’s all about her – and her rendition here of American standard ‘Old Blue’ has more of the resonance of Denny’s marvellous The Old Fashioned Waltz album, which was the least folkie thing she ever did. But Williams reminds more often, in spirit if not in sound, of the purity of soul of Anne Briggs. It is difficult to get away from the feeling that this is a debut record made by the real thing.
That Williams has incorporated some warm guitar sounds that are the hallmark of such trad music luminaries as Natalie Merchant is a striking note of her intent to stay true whilst also becoming known. The songwriting is, as yet, nowhere near the league of Merchant, and certainly not in the realm of Denny, one of Britain’s great songwriters of any era. ‘Week of Pines’ is slight if pleasing; ‘Mapping’ and ‘Hallt’ similarly satisfying if ephemeral. Williams’ harp playing is subdued, certainly not virtuosic (not to say she isn’t extremely accomplished, but it’s pinned back on this album), and only really defines when on ‘In Luna’, a beautiful skipping reflection that sounds most like Briggs’ rare accompanied recordings. The production is unobtrusive, but sometimes sounds as if it intends to be. The trad covers are fresh, and do not stick out on the record as covers, which is not often the pattern on albums like this. Sometimes covers can almost be akin to comic relief if you’re in the mood to laugh at all; they tug the record between the classic beauty of Old Mother Time and the shallow pop-ambitions of the artist’s own compositions. Not here. Similarly the melding of English and Welsh language songs seems part of a subtle pattern, a natural sound to the record rather than anything more calculated or strident. The record deserves attention from producers and artists alike for this alone. It is an eclectic mix of covers, languages, folk, pop, and Williams’ still emerging songwriting style and ability, and it sounds whole and smooth and one.
But beside this, why is this album worthy of note? It is, on face, a fine record, one that is pleasant enough to find a home on Radio 2. That would be a mark of commercial success, but that is also where young artists go to die and pay off their mortgages. Georgia Ruth, on one listen, should stay away from any thoughts of settling down quite yet. Her voice is discomfortingly good. It may not grab at first, but it most likely will, and most likely you’ll not know why.
The vocal is pushed to the front of every song, almost negating the musicianship that floats around behind it and, once again, brings Anne Briggs to mind. The closing track, ‘Winter’, could be a cappella. But it isn’t. Her voice is folkie. It is touching pop. It is wistful and soaring and gentle and all of those things. But it is something else.
‘Week of Pines’, as a song, is nice, but largely forgettable. But the vocal, playing with jotted down lyrics that riff on the folkie vibe, is a remarkable thing. It is so delicate in places you’re afraid it might be blown away by the drummer’s soft brush strokes. But with it, it is crisp, the tongue clips the edges of the notes, the melody shivers, it is shallow and rich, giving it a real sense of the sound of maidenhood that is so important to this type of folk; it is mature and child-like all at once. There are moments later, such as on ‘Codi Angor’, when her voice rustles and snips, like the folds of the paper a love letter is written on, the letter you read over and over again and keep close in your breast pocket. The delicate agility in her voice is so fresh in these times of nasal athletics and vein-popping circus acts that Week of Pines becomes an album you play over and over again, not because of great songs or original instrumentation, but because there is something in the originality of Williams’ voice that is worth being in the company of. It makes you want to read the love letter over and over again. The sounds get to you. Stay away from mortgages and Radio 2, Georgia Ruth; your place is here with us.
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