Jim Moray

Jim Moray
Niblick Is A Giraffe NIBL005

I've really put my head above the parapet by volunteering to review this one. I admit to having been not entirely won over - well, partly intrigued, partly impressed and partly infuriated - by that hailed-as-wunderkid-Jim's Sweet England debut CD, then I was distinctly turned off by his mannered stage act when he supported Richard Thompson on tour last year. But this, Jim's eponymous second full-length CD, is set to provoke even more controversy, of that I'm certain. It's very much a "blow hot and cold" opus in terms of this listener's reaction, and I've tried in vain to come to terms with its perplexingly wayward and impulsive inventiveness, finding it by turns intensely unfathomable, brilliant, ingenious and maddeningly unlistenable!

I wouldn't criticise Jim for bravely following his own independent thinking and formulating a defiantly personal take on the tradition, and I'd not deny him (or any performer) his freedom to express just that alongside the Carthys, Rusbys, Bellowheads (and yes the Unthanks too, pace fellow-reviewers!) of this world - but there's much more within Jim's work that'll severely polarise opinions and cause endless arguments about what should or should not be done to folk music!!! You may feel that it's probably more a question of what constitutes "the folk process" or in this case, valid artistic licence. The arty, flashy cover pic, for a start, might be taken as a harbinger of the album content - I can't help seeing it as a conscious homage to David Bowie's Aladdin Sane, which rather prompts the question: is this Jim-lad insane too? or merely deranged?! Well maybe, judging from the apparent wilfulness of much of the music on the album - albeit a carefully considered wilfulness, a deliberate attempt to shock or startle, by dint of a phaser-on-stun-setting overload of ideas yet with serious ambition and couched in a musical vision that's annoyingly inconsistent even within any given track.

In Jim's determinedly nu-folk vision, the main sticking point for many listeners, notably those blessed with unrepentant "traditional ears", is his often OTT pop-style vocal delivery. However, it's fair to say, when observing that it appears very much at odds with the traditional ethos, that much the same charge could justifiably have been levelled at some of those 70s prog-rock adventures inspired by traditional balladry. And overall I'll admit there were some tracks I liked quite a lot. For me, possibly the most successful "Moray forays" here in terms of listenability and consistency occur in the credibly retro ambience of Dog+Gun, the brooding faux-medievalism of Flow My Tears, the expansive and unusual treatment of Who's The Fool Now (pure 80s indie with an obtuse grunge interlude), and the perversely satisfying doomed-brass-laden atmospherics of Nightvisiting. On most of which, mercifully and crucially, the often idiosyncratic musical arrangements don't (in the end) distract from the impact or the telling of the narrative (with the possible exception of Barbara Allen, whose strangely mechanical transmogrification renders her well nigh unrecognisable).

After a while I also got used to the epic quasi-Radiohead stateliness of My Sweet Rose, which unfolds attractively if unpredictably; in spite of a few cheesy sub-Genesis touches, its Spectoresque layerings are worthy spectres at the feast of our imaginations. In that illustrious company, Jim's relatively orthodox canter through Fair+Tender Lovers is a mite bland, and his Gilderoy is frankly quite sickly, whereas a couple of tracks find young Jim badly overdosing on pomp and posture, stepping way over the borders of acceptable taste with the over-glossy cinematography of Lord Willoughby (which in a hard-driven and grandiose attempt at dramatisation throws everything possible into the luxuriously orchestrated mix but to ever-decreasing effect) and the painfully embarrassing, excruciatingly torchy (ie. puts Rufus Wainwright to shame!) Magic When You're Near with its yukky tolling church bells and tinkly sleighride (and complete with pretentious pseudo-Day-In-The-Life decay of the final cadence, seemingly bookending the opening Prelude that smacks of the Moody Blues' Departure, though with neither its onward momentum nor depth of content).

So in conclusion I'm still very much in two minds over this release: I admire its attitude, its challenging of perceptions and tradition, yet I still feel that on much of its content the quality-control filter has been mis-set. But for much of its length the CD's still a startling ride, and I'd urge readers to keep an open mind.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 68 of The Living Tradition magazine.