Friday, December 3, 2010

Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit - Been Listening

Release Date (UK): June 7, 2010
Release Date (US): October 25, 2010
Label: Transgressive Records

This is one I've been wanting to review for awhile. I've had it since it was released in the US, about five weeks ago. The reason I hadn't gotten to it yet is that I wanted to give it a few listens before forming an opinion on it.

Since I already reviewed their previous album, I'll spare the background information and get right to this album.

Obviously, since I liked A Larum so much, I had been looking forward to this for awhile.  I listened to it right when I got it, and as it turns didn't really grab me.  I couldn't say then and there that this is a solid album, and that you should go out and buy it.

 The album starts off well.  The first track, Kentucky Pill, is a thoughtful, mature folk tune, with a great sound.  Lost and Found is another thoughtful, mature folk tune, with a great tune.  Churlish May, like the first two tunes, has a moderate tempo, but some horns are added to the mix.

Right away, I noticed that this album features a more mature, well-developed sound than its predecessor (which I just pronounced "PREE de sess or" in my head, due to Johnny's English accent).  The songs are very tight, flow very well, and seem to reflect a more poetic and mellowed out Flynn.

The title track is a slow, peaceful folk ballad featuring a very slightly overdriven lead guitar, and vocals that seem to want to be reduced to only a whisper.  It is slow and plodding, but does not drag the way the only plodding song on their previous album, Brown Trout Blues, does.  Flynn has figured out how to write a good slow song.

Barnacled Warship, one of the highlights of the album for me, starts out with what sounds to my untrained ears like a cello (or maybe it's the bottom of a violin's range...who knows), and teases us with some of the awesome harmonies which made A Larum so great, and had more or less eluded us up to this point.  This is a good medium-paced song, but by now it feels someone lively.

Sweet William (Part 2) is another good track.  Livelier yet than the previous track, The Sussex Wit treat us to a cool banjo part, with some strings and horns in the mix.

At this point, they slow it down again, and we get a slow duet with Flynn and fellow London folk musician Laura Marling, called The Water.  Musically, this one is a little drab, albeit beautiful.  It's definitely new territory for Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit.

Howl is a slightly bluesy piece with a bit of angst in the chorus.  I'm torn on this one; in some ways, this is to this album what Brown Trout Blues was on the last, although this is a significantly better song, and a more dynamic one than we're used to from this band.  I think it may have worked better had it followed a more lively song.

The next track, Agnes, is lively, but unlike the lively tracks from the previous album, this actually sounds like a happy song.  While there is nothing wrong with optimistic lyrics, I do kind of miss the juxtaposition of dark lyrics with upbeat music.  Happy lyrics with upbeat music just isn't as cool.

Amazon Love is the slowest song on the whole album, with just a piano carrying most of the instrumental load.  It's an incredibly mellow track; possibly the most mellow on either album.  The Prizefighter And The Heiress also starts out relatively slow, but picks up halfway through, finishing the album on a strong note.

1Kentucky Pill3:52
2Lost and Found3:41
3Churlish May4:02
4Been Listening5:16
5Barnacled Warship5:12
6Sweet William, Pt. 25:00
7The Water4:12
10Amazon Love5:39
11The Prizefighter and the Heiress5:06

It should be said that every track here is good.  This album's flaw is not in what it contains, but rather, what it is missing.  Gone is the lighthearted attitude that A Larum seemed to carry.  This is a serious album, rather than a fun one.  The strength of their first album lay in its being a toe-tappingly fun folk record, and this is (with the possible exception of the first track) almost entirely devoid of that element.  This at once leaves me a little disappointed, as I didn't get what I expected to get out of it, but also fairly confident that Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit are more than capable of growing musically, rather than releasing album after album of the same material.

Addendum: The US version comes with the Sweet William EP appended to the end of the album, consisting of these tracks:
  1. The Mountain Is Burning
  2. Trains
  3. Sweet William
  4. Drum
I'm not going to review them here; suffice it to say, they lean toward the mellow side.


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