Grand Union caused quite a stir when their early recordings were released on compilations and the Jane Jane EP. They were even hailed as the future of Acid Folk. However, listening to their “so slick it’s almost soporific” debut album, the term that springs to mind is cocktail folk.
Their record company have positioned them as mixing traditional folk music with jazz, invoking great names from the 60s when folk, rock and pop crossovers were at their zenith. The folk and jazz confluence is strongest in their own compositions, such as One Bright Day and Fall Into My Arms, which sounds like the sort of song Sade could have had a hit with.
A sultry flute and bongo Latin American twist is given to the arrangement for Rain And Snow, the opening track, which is a good demonstration of their ambitious approach, while John Riley and Shady Grove are much more traditional.
There are oddballs like Lovers Lane, which has a splash of Spanish guitar, and comes over as that strange mix of musical melodrama and deadpan vocal the Would Be Goods were so adept at, though ten songs into the album, it feels very out of place. It ends on a positive fiddle-fest, with the Eastern European influenced I Remember My Life Like A Story.
There are some folk rock moments too – Morning Brings The Light brought to mind Jethro Tull, in the arrangement as well as the flute playing. If your image of the genre is the comedian’s take – an unscrubbed Richard Branson lookalike in a home-knitted jumper intoning nasally with a finger in his ear – you’re in for a shock, and probably a pleasant one. This is sophisticated stuff, and therein lies the problem.
Folk as a musical genre is where storytelling and wordsmithery come to the fore, where the ability to dramatise the content and connect emotionally with the listener are paramount. Kate Vahl on lead vocals harmonises so faultlessly with Simon O’Grady and Casper Sewell that the sweetness of their combined singing is almost unearthly. The performers seem so focused on being perfect that they forget to be passionate.
A tremendous song like John Riley, full of loss and longing but tempered by an undying hope, is delivered with no more emotion than a laundry list – although Vahl does put on a sort of faux yokel accent, perhaps to make it easier to deliver pronunciations like “drownd-ed.” Some of their own compositions are quite beautiful, but too many tracks are so breezy and ephemeral you forget them as soon as you’ve heard them.
If Grand Union are fronting a Brentford-based renaissance, then the future of British folk lies in providing the ideal accompaniment to Pizza Express’ clientele while they enjoy a quattre formaggio and a modest glass of Chianti.