Sunday, 24 March 2013

Various - Electric Eden (Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music)

Excellent 2CD compilation to accompany Rob Young's book. Documents folk rock's high watermark, and more arcane tributaries.

In 2010 Faber & Faber published Rob Young's book Electric Eden, a beautifully hefty brick of a book that authoritatively examines the British Isles' love of folk music and how it has mutated through the years, seemingly with one foot in an often idealised past, and one eye looking towards a more visionary, exploratory future. It's the sort of book that can have you seriously denting your bank balance as you head over to Amazon to purchase albums by the artists he covers. The book's main thrust deals with the folk rock boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when folk moved away from its purest roots and moved towards something more in keeping with the boundary pushing mood of the times. Cue sitars, communes, drugs and the plugging in of electric guitars. Brit-folk's very own “Judas” moment as it were.

It's music from this period that makes up the bulk of Universal's new 2CD compilation released as a companion piece for the book. All of folk rock's big hitters are here – Sandy Denny (both solo and with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay), Bert Jansch (solo and with Pentangle), John Martyn, Nick Drake, Steeleye Span, The Incredible String Band et al, along with lesser celebrated names such as Shelagh McDonald, COB, Comus and Trees. This music has its shoots in the present day via American artists such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Fleet Foxes which is testament to its enduring resonance.

There have been other similar compilations, notably the Bob Stanley curated Gather In The Mushrooms and Early Morning Hush, Rough Trade's psych-folk collection, and Andy Votel's Folk Is Not A Four Letter Word. What marks this compilation out is its more scholarly take on the music with informative sleeve notes by Rob Young himself, and the fact it's divided up into two CD's, the first entitled Acoustic Eden being more innocent and trad (though still packed with fresh ideas), whereas the second, Electric Albion points to progression and possibilities.

If anything this collection has a slightly more mainstream slant than those previously mentioned, though there are plenty of pleasant surprises too. I'd been unfamiliar with Welshman Meic Stevens yet his sitar-infused track Yorric is one of the stand-out tracks. Comus' Diana sounds like it could have been recorded last week, and wouldn't be out of place on some modern bespoke festival stage. There's even room for a pre-fame David Bowie imitating Marc Bolan's folk warble on Black Country Rock.

The book has a broader sweep than the CD's, taking in folk-song collectors such as Cecil Sharp, classical composer Vaughan Williams and artists that Young considers to be later keepers of the flame such as Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, all of whom are absent from this collection. I'm not sure why that would be, perhaps it wouldn't have flowed as coherently. It is however an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to investigate this particularly fascinating era of music. It's the sort of collection that can open up many musical avenues and once heard you probably will end up heading to the Amazon website, at the very least to buy the book.