Given the recent hype and praise heaped upon the movement being dubbed as some resurgence in British Folk (including Noah And The Whale and Mumford And Sons), it seems a prescient and shrewd time for the Smoke Fairies’ Through Low Light And Trees to be unleashed on the world.
However, it’s evident that this has little in common with the mainstream sounds of those listed above, nor the mellow folk-pop of Kate Rusby, nor the joyous cacophony of Bellowhead. This is music that’s influenced as much by the blues and Americana as it is haunted by the ghosts of folk music’s past.
Opening gambit After The Rain is arguably not the best way to open the album. There’s always the expectation that it’s going to shake its shackles and break out into full-blown blues-rock fury, but ultimately it never delivers, offering instead a feeling of hesitancy. This is redressed on Summer Fades, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Edwyn Collins‘ Leviathan, and whose similarly sweeping, surefooted sound counters the uncertainty of the previous track.
Hotel Room wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Rolling Stones record, and it becomes apparent that Smoke Fairies work best when doing straightforward, near-blues numbers as opposed to more complicated folk arrangements. This notion is reaffirmed by tracks later on in the record such as Strange Moon Rising and Storm Song. Meanwhile Devil In My Mind and Erie Lackawanna sound remarkably similar to Summer Fades, not just in terms of overall feel and texture, but right down to the melody and chord structures.
But the record doesn’t just fall into blues- and folk-infused songs. The beautiful, haunting piano line that provides the tune for Dragon is a welcome change, as is the ’60s pop styling of Blue Skies, akin as it is to the tunefulness of The Byrds or The Monkees. So, Smoke Fairies have a breadth of styles and songs that arguably this record doesn’t necessarily do justice to. It will be interesting to see how they develop over future releases. It is worth mentioning that the production (manned by Head, best known for working with PJ Harvey) is dense and humid, yet simultaneously clear and crisp – depending on what musical style is being used at any given moment – and admirably never feels like a compromise.
Ultimately this is a solid record, if not necessarily one that will change either the world or people’s perceptions of folk. It at times feels confused about its identity, and its attempts to fuse blues and folk don’t always succeed. The delicate multiple-part vocal harmonies sometimes feel at odds with the song that they accompany and you can’t help but wonder if they would be better suited to more traditional folk music. But, make no mistake: when this record is on its rails, and when all the elements come together, it’s very good. Ultimately it shows that perhaps the Atlantic Ocean is not all that stands between traditional American and British folk music.