To connect folk music with specific places is a bit of a no-brainer. Folk is the music of the people (the genre’s name being the big giveaway there) and it’s often resoundingly traditional, evoking a time before we were able to travel halfway around the world in less than a day, or send recorded music across continents with a few clicks of a mouse. Accordingly, folk music differs wildly depending on where it has its roots: Mongolian throat singing doesn’t sound much like Scottish pipes and harps.
Ralfe Band is an English folk band led by the man who lends them their name, Oly Ralfe. He’s something of an anomaly within folk, as he prefers not to tie his music to just one place. Admittedly, many musicians have looked to other cultures for inspiration – Paul Simon of course drew on South Africa for Graceland while The Beatles famously had an Indian phase – but Ralfe’s musical compass can’t seem to stay still for the duration of a single album. Son Be Wise is Ralfe Band’s fourth if you include the soundtrack for the film Bunny And The Bull, and that offbeat movie, which imagines a road trip around Europe, is a fitting counterpart to the band’s collage-like style.
Son Be Wise ventures furthest afield with Come On, Go Wild, where the lyrics describe a journey in the most literal sense. “I’m leaving London today, you know lately things have been going astray,” Ralfe sings, later adding, “I’m leaving for Mexico on the day of the dead”. The music is a semi-Latin shuffle, with keyboard sounds that recall both xylophone and steel drums, and stuttering percussion. Magdalena is less successful. It starts out sounding typically English, but as it goes on it recalls the worst kind of world music – you can imagine a panpipe cover being all too easy to contrive.
Towards the end of the record a healthy dose of Americana is introduced. Cold Chicago Morning is a delightful concoction of bluesy piano, stand-up bass and the whine of steel strings, while closing track Boy With An Old Tin Drum manages to combine the blues with a waltz, and is nicely accentuated with a horn part. It’s the versatile piano playing that holds that whole thing together, lending a spring to Hidden Place, a rainy patina to Oh My Father, and bursts of the aforementioned blues here and there.
Although Son Be Wise hangs together successfully, Ralfe’s sonic wanderlust does cause problems as the album suffers slightly for feeling too detached from anywhere or anything in particular. It’s not compulsory for music to have such ties, but folk feels a little too aimless without them being in place – and this is unmistakably a folk album, as the lilting melodies and cameos from accordion and fiddle make very clear.