After all, vanity can be a tricky thing. With this record, English folk supergroup Faustus (Saul Rose, Paul Sartin and Benji Kirkpatrick) made it their express mission to “to banish all that is anodyne and fey in the delivery of folk music”. But rather than writing new folk songs with an organic, unaffected feel, Faustus has recorded 10 songs from the traditional English folk canon. And some indeed might call this vain: for Faustus, to be so conservative about their delivery and arrangement is to ignore its mass accessibility, or at least any considerations of how its music will be received by an audience outside of the traditional folk niche.
Fortunately however, Faustus has chosen a genre of traditional music particularly well suited to this kind of treatment. Of course, in the most general sense, folk music is folk music because it has the strange and mystical ability to be lasting. Each folk song was once a pop song, and the genre’s influence on contemporary pop music is strong and consistent. But these specifically are the days of messy, muscular, harmony-laden English man-folk—so much so that folk-rompers Mumford And Sons won the 2013 Grammy award for album of the year with their latest album (schlock-fest) Babel.
So, for a project so esoteric, Faustus has found precisely the right time and place. Broken Down Gentlemen makes painfully evident where Mumford And Sons have borrowed their melodic and lyrical tropes from – right from the very start. The opening track features a gruff, agile, and rather contemporary vocal performance by band member Benji Kirkpatrick (also of Bellowhead) of the English folk romp: the song swings with a winding, burning fiddle line and a flickering acoustic guitar, offering the kind of satisfying unexpected melodic turns and close male harmonies we’ve come to expect from stadium folksters like Marcus Mumford.
The rest of the tunes follow suit. Each presents a very traditional, very organically energetic arrangement of a folk standard performed by undeniably contemporary musicians – emphasizing just how current many of these songs have come to sound. America Stranger/Princess Waltz features Paul Sartin’s rich, lilting voice: too, here, Faustus’ use of acoustic guitar and three-part harmony recalls the kind of English-folk inspired work by bands like The Decembrists and Fleet Foxes. In fact, Banks Of Nile, which employs a traditional instrumental drone, sounds at first like a new Midlake track. Songs like Blow The Windy Morning and The Captain’s Apprentice are beautiful, engaging, and sophisticated – and are convincingly of this era, and of an era that has long since passed.
Unfortunately, even Faustus’ raw, unpretentious reimaginings of these classics cannot always hold their own outside of the traditional genre. On some songs, like Og’s Eye Man, Faustus cannot reconcile its richly crafted harmonies and driving instrumental performances with their selection of lyrics: as relevant as the music might be, some folk songs, it turns out, are simply too lyrically fantastical and specific to compel empathy. This is also a problem on The Thrashing Machine: as many of these songs offer narratives that are universal to this day, the closing track’s very primitive lyrics (especially paired with its spare instrumentation) make the tune an odd choice.
Ultimately, though, in stripping away all affect in their delivery of folk classics, Faustus highlights an interesting trend. A return to the American folk songs of the 1930s caused a great folk revival in the United States (and heralded the arrival of figures like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel, changing pop music forever). What Faustus seems to be doing here is making a dedicated return to the English folk songs of old – and, since this kind of musical revival has already taken hold in the mainstream, they may be making the right move.