Somewhere around 2011, James Elkington stopped writing songs. He had been the leader of a band called The Zincs; a partner in a band called The Horse’s Ha; and had released an album of guitar duets with his friend Nathan Salsburg, but the question of what this British-born-but-Chicago-based musician was going to do next loomed large, and he didn’t feel as if he had much to say.
A change is as good as a rest and, being a natural collaborator, an immediate answer was to start playing in other people’s bands. As both musician and arranger he commenced to work with Richard Thompson, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Gunn, and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and, after a few years, found that contributing his energies to the music of others had somehow returned to him the energy for his own. Part of that renewed creative vitality came from exploring the acoustic guitar in a new tuning (in which he wrote all the songs on Wintres Woma) and, cashing in on downtime from his touring schedule, by working assiduously to hone both guitaristic and lyrical techniques.
Wintres Woma is Old English for “the sound of winter,” a phrase that Elkington found appealing when he encountered it in a book about the historical English imagination. It seemed to resonate in both the sound of his new compositions—the icy limpidity of the arrangements, the snowy tumble of guitars and strings—and with his gnawing consideration of how much cultural upbringing brings to bear on one’s own creativity if given half a chance.
Elkington was brought up in England during the ’70s and ’80s—a time when traditional and acoustic music was largely shunned in favor of the new wave (to which his largely-destroyed copy of The Fall’s Perverted By Language will attest)—but found after his first forays into songwriting that some semblance of the folk music vernacular had crept in and wouldn’t leave. On the advice of a friend he started to investigate his own musical heritage, and that investigation began to inform both his outlook and his output.
Elkington’s music, however, is anything if retroactive, and anything if folk music:
“It’s not folk music,” he asserts. “I may use the mechanics of folk music to put across my own ideas at times, but it really doesn’t fall into any specific community or songwriterly tradition. The album’s lyrics do seem to have a preoccupation with unseen powers at work and other dimensions, both of which seem to show up in traditional English music, but it’s based on my own experience and understanding, not anyone else’s.” These lyrics contend particularly with the continuing strangeness of living in a different country: “For the most part it’s very liberating, but England is old, and there is a weird energy that comes from that country, an energy that doesn’t seem to feel the same in America. It took me moving away from home to feel it at all. I was so used to it that I didn’t know I was feeling it until I didn’t feel it anymore.”
Wintres Woma was recorded at Wilco’s studio, The Loft, in a five-day sprawl with engineer Mark Greenberg. Elkington played and arranged all the instruments, with the exception of upright bass from Nick Macri, percussion from Tim Daisy, and string performances from Macie Stewart and Tomeka Reid, all of whom are veterans of Chicago’s collaborative improvised music milieu.
At times the results conjure Kevin Ayers delivering a Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins poem over a Bert Jansch song, all the while speaking in Elkington’s singular voice, and shot with indelible melodies. The opening track “Make It Up” takes off at breakneck speed propelled by the snaking rhythm section, as Elkington pointedly recounts the time he almost crashed his car trying to get to a séance on time (mostly fiction). “Wading The Vapors” deals with one of those memories so distant that it has ceased to feel like it really happened and showcases an astounding cello solo from Tomeka Reid. “Greatness Yet To Come” features Elkington’s labyrinthine guitar front and center in a tale of 1980s mid-teen hallucinogenic excess (mostly non-fiction), dissolving soon after into a cinematic reverie recalling Ennio Morricone at his most languid.
Each of these songs wrangles with memory, and even prophecy, in its knotty language and elegant, unpredictable progressions, drawing on the uncertain past—both personal and historical—in order to negotiate the uncertain future. In that sense, despite James’ protestations, perhaps it is folk music.
“An alterna-folk epiphany. a cryptic storyteller and dazzling acoustic guitarist. More than just another bustle in your hedgerow… Elkington’s guarded introspection makes for a subtle tension that the killer guitar playing gently dissolves.” – Rolling Stone
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