[Transgressive/Thirty Tigers (2010)]
Been Listening is a forward-thinking melding of influences and an utterly extraordinary album. Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit have managed to find an intersection of all music in the English-speaking world by way of centuries-old English folk music, and it’s a dusty street corner in London populated by men in top hats, red coats, immigrants from former colonies, and West End gangsters.
The musical synthesis ranges from smooth blending to a “salad,” not just throughout the album but sometimes in the same song or even musical phrase. The album’s opener, “Kentucky Pill,” demonstrates this perfectly. It has a mandolin riff that sounds like an thumb piano, a trumpet line that calls to mind Afropop, a verse melody that is nearly-pure british folk, and a chorus that comes from . . . somewhere else. The subject matter here, like in many of the songs on the record, is variously serious, funny, violent, and contemplative:
I’m running for my old playmates
I’m running through the town
I’m running with a gun
Thats gonna shoot my playmates down
Deep listening to this song gives the peculiar and palpable feeling of walking simultaneously on London concrete and African grass.
War and recruitment, mainstay themes of the folk music of the British Isles, get an update “Barnacled Warship,” which stays almost purely British folk rock in style. But “Sweet William Part 2” goes the salad route; it is bookended with a klezmer- or gypsy-influenced violin riff, while the middle settles into a march-time feel that seems to have come straight out of a country bordering Scotland, Eastern Europe, and Appalachia in the 16th, 19th, and 20th centuries due to a freakish warp in space-time. The song makes a lyrical argument for music being evidence of the circular nature of human history and experience:
If Will had known better, he’d not have known better
And history’s song would have ended with time
So it’s lucky for learning that history’s yearning
Is not in repeating but for something that rhymes
Will you pick up your fiddle young Willie (pick it up)
Will you pick up your fiddle and play
For the world has begun with the birth of the sun
And its death the very same day
The album’s softer moments include “The Water” (a quiet duet with Laura Marling) and the disc’s closer “The Prizefighter and the Heiress.” The U.S. edition of the album also includes some earlier material in this vein via the four bonus tracks from the Sweet William EP. The tunes and lyrics on the EP are still top-notch, but the production does not quite stand up to that of the Been Listening album proper.
Like their contemporaries and fellow Radio One darlings Mumford and Sons, Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit are an outstanding 21st century update on the British folk rock sound, which hadn’t until recently progressed much beyond the forty-seven-year-old style of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Their most obvious American equivalent is the Decemberists, but Flynn eschews Colin Malloy’s occasional pretension without sacrificing drama and intelligence. Even if Been Listening doesn’t propel them to the same deserved heights here in the States as the Decemberists or their musical forebears have reached, it’s sure to find a loving home on many a CD shelf. It certainly has on mine. [www.johnny-flynn.com]
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)
© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.