James Elkington — Wintres Woma (June 30, 2017)✹ On his debut solo album, the guitarist James Elkington — a sideman for Jeff Tweedy and Richard Thompson — reemerges with an elegant and assured collection of acoustic fingerpicking and smart songwriting. Warmly whirling folk guitar.
Location: Chicago, IL
Album release: June 30, 2017
Recording Location: The Loft, Chicago
Styles: Indie Folk, Alternative/Indie Rock, Neo~Traditional Folk, Progressive Folk, Roots Rock, Modern Creative
Record Label: Paradise of Bachelors
01 Make It Up 3:18
02 Hollow in Your House 3:18
03 Wading the Vapors 4:04
04 Grief Is Not Coming 2:50
05 When I Am Slow 2:53
06 The Parting Glass 1:33
07 The Hermit Census 3:40
08 Greatness Yet to Come 4:55
09 Sister of Mine 3:41
10 My Trade in Sun Tears 3:24
11 Any Afternoon 4:53
✹ Traditional 6
✹ All others: James Elkington
✹ Josh Bonati Mastering
✹ Tim Daisy Percussion
✹ James Elkington Collage, Composer, Guitars, Vocals
✹ Brendan Greaves Layout
✹ Mark Greenberg Engineer, Mixing
✹ Nick Macri Bass
✹ Tomeka Reid Cello, Vocals
✹ Macie Stewart Viola, Violin, Vocals
✹ Richard Thompson Quotation Author
✹ Traditional Composer
✹ Spencer Tweedy Photography
✹ “Jim is a great guitarist and a tremendous, empathetic listener.” — Richard Thompson
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar; Score: ****
✹ A regular, if somewhat under~the~radar presence on the Chicago scene, British~born guitarist/vocalist James Elkington makes fluid, harmonically layered folk that draws on the progressive style pioneered in the ‘60s and ‘70s by artists like Bert Jansch and John Fahey. It’s a style he previously investigated alongside fellow guitarist Nathan Salsburg on several albums and which found him working as a sideman for respected rock luminaries including Jeff Tweedy and Richard Thompson. It’s also a sound he spotlights on his evocative, gorgeously rendered debut album, 2017’s Wintres Woma. Old English for „the sound of winter,“ Wintres Woma envelops you like a warm wool blanket on a dark, snowbound evening. Elkington has a woody, naturalistic voice that fits well with his introspective style. However, it’s his adept fingerpicking, lithe fretboard skills, and inventive harmonic structures that impress the most here. Whether backed by a cadre of genre~crossing talents including violinist Macie Stewart, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Nick Macri, and percussionist Tim Daisy, or playing solo, as he does on a delicately rendered version of the traditional song „The Parting Glass,“ Elkington creates a warm, deeply nuanced sound that’s at once traditional and forward~thinking. Primarily, these are all original compositions and have the same new, yet strangely familiar feeling that some classic artists like Nick Drake, Robert Wyatt, and Ralph McTell are able to conjure. Some cuts, like rambling lead~off „Make It Up“ and the waltz~like „The Hermit Census,“ have a winding, circular quality that improbably combines a rootsy singer/songwriter lyricism with a vibe influenced by the contemporary classical composition of John Cage. Others, like the magical „When I Am Slow,“ reveal yet more of Elkington’s broad stylistic palette as his resonant traditional folk guitar lines spiral outward into Middle Eastern~tinged melodies. Ultimately, it’s these small, inventive epiphanies, like staring at images in swirling snow, that make Wintres Woma such an unexpectedly transcendent delight.
✹ Drawing from British folk, avant~rock, and jazz traditions alike, Wintres Woma—Old English for “the sound of winter”— is James Elkington’s debut solo record, but you’ve likely heard his masterful guitar playing and arranging, even if you didn’t realize it. Elkington (an Englishman living in Chicago) is an inveterate collaborator who brings his lyrical compositional and improvisational sensibilities to any group. He has toured as a band member, recorded, and/or collaborated with Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Michael Chapman, Joan Shelley, Nathan Salsburg and Brokeback, to name just a few of his many enthusiastic admirers. His assured album, recorded at Wilco’s Loft, is baroquely detailed and beautifully constructed, featuring both his baritone vocals and some of Chicago’s finest, including Tomeka Reid.
✹ 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.