I always find myself approaching the term “contemporary folk” with an abundance of caution. It’s a loosely defined term, if indeed it’s ever been defined at all, and it has to be admitted that it has been used occasionally (although never by this reviewer) as something of an apology for folk music that simply doesn’t come up to the standards that have been achieved over many decades and by multitudes of creators.
It tends to be used variously to describe approaches to subject matter and lyrics, to harmonic structures and melodic devices, to arrangements and orchestration, or, in extremis, when the music itself offers little on which to pass comment, to the artists’ wardrobe choices.
And when I sit down with a new collection that has been stamped with the dreaded “contemporary” label, I find myself pre-primed to bristle and cringe at ill-fitting references to mobile phones and bankers’ bonuses, or to be flat out offended by random, atonal key changes, or the use of heavily auto-tuned vocals and drum machines as misguided (and ultimately futile) attempts to achieve “relevance”.
And so it was with some relief that I came quickly to realise that the new album from English-born, New York-based Rupert Wates, his eleventh solo collection, is guilty of none of these offenses. This is a collection of comfortably familiar subjects and gently wrought stories, supported by simple, but beautifully played acoustic guitar arrangements, with the occasional delicate contribution from a supporting cast of other instruments and vocalists.
Oddly, the other musicians and vocalists are not credited on the album, which is slightly disappointing, not least for those among us who still recall avidly and hungrily reading sleeve notes, and banking music tree connections trivia. (You know who you are!!)
Wates is an excellent guitarist, and the undoubted skill and musicality in his playing is probably where his tilt at the “contemporary” moniker is most deserved. That, and his melodies, which are perfectly within the limits of tolerance of even the most ardent folk purists, but still avoid any threat of cliché and over-familiarity. I would go so far as to say that some of these songs put this listener in mind of early Gordon Lightfoot, which might perhaps be a result of the North American influences that Wates would probably have absorbed in the 15 years of his tenure there.
In fairness, my trepidation about the “contemporary” label, and the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of that description, was less pronounced at the start of this adventure than it might have been. It resulted from Wates own comment that his hope for the album is that it sounds “both ancient and contemporary, or in other words, like folk music”.
Job done then!