The solo debut from James Elkington comes late by many industry standards. At age 46, the sideman for the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Richard Thompson has crafted a sound all his own, demonstrating his chops at songwriting and acoustic guitar while drawing on folk traditions from his birth country of England. With such an experienced musician at the helm, the album “Wintres Woma” is a journey worth taking.
From the beginning, Elkington’s album hearkens back to the sound of British folk from the 60s and early 70s, hopping along in quick rhythms on the opener “Make It Up” with the help of circular guitar work and energetic bongo playing. Hints of Jethro Tull and Bert Jansch float through the vocal delivery. It’s obvious that Elkington is learned student of the era, yet injects of his own persona to make a statement that feels fresh and new in the music world of 2017.
Just like the circular guitar work on the album, it’s always interesting to see how styles from years past return to fashion, changing and shifting as they combine with other styles and are filtered through the lens of another artist. That is how the music of James Elkington feels, like we are absorbing the folk traditions of the 20th century through his eyes, re-imagining our relationship to the music and the past itself.
Elkington’s voice on the album is comforting and warm, not extraordinary in its range but friendly in its tone and timbre. The instrumentation is expertly played and varied – we hear slide guitar and cello accompanying different tracks, each instrument subtly morphing the songs they appear in. In “Grief is Not Coming,” slide guitar floats in and out of an upbeat number that finds Elkington detailing how grief will eventually miss its mark.
“Grief is not coming in a matter of time
Its metal hands will fail to choke
Closing like umbrella spokes
Grief is not coming for you
Grief is not borne of the astral ape
To furnish your days without release
Make your mouth a scornful crease
Grief is not coming for you”
In Old English, “Wintres Woma” translates as “the sound of winter.” Elkington was intrigued by the statement after he found it an old book, finding a closeness between the sound of his songs and the feel of wintertime. He also found the phrase resonated with what his bandcamp describes as a “gnawing consideration of how much cultural upbringing brings to bear on one’s own creativity if given half a chance.” Having grown up in a 70s and 80s England that had largely abandoned much of its folk tradition, this feeling is especially poignant for Elkington.
Yet despite the way his songs are steeped in folk tradition, Elkington doesn’t describe his style as “folk music.” For him, it’s only the mechanics of folk music being used to process his ideas, which don’t belong to any specific tradition or community. The lyrics he describes as a way of processing the strangeness of living in a foreign country; both a liberating feeling of being in America and a strong sense of the energy of the old country alive inside of him.
“Sister of Mine” stands out from the rest of the album as a pleasant mix of jazz and folk influence, floating along rhythmically in a balance of guitar and double bass and accented by harmonica. Yet its sunny and free feel comes packaged with mysterious lyrics that might take some time to decipher:
“Smother uncle asunder
His struggle in vain
Then entrails made into garlands
To welcome my rein
Our advisors on sound
Cold in the ground
No sort to trust
Favorite sister of mine
Sister of mine”
“Wintres Woma,” in all its fingerpicking wonder and esoteric chord progressions, brings the folk traditions of England through the filter of James Elkington, and the world is better for it. The album, appropriately recorded in Wilco’s studio in Chicago, showcases the best ways we can process the music of yesteryear: through understanding the cultures we were brought up in and seeing what lies on the other side in our present life. Elkington is facing a world where the past and future and collide, guitar and notebook in hand.