Actually, come to think of it, writing as somebody who likes to regard himself as curious and open-minded with catholic tastes in music and a secret conviction that the number of tracks on one’s ipod is an index to one’s worth as a human being, there are loads of genres I don’t get on with. I think both opera and heavy metal are overwrought and silly, that both jazz and electronica are self-indulgent and irritatingly structureless, that most pre-1900 classical should be confined to the soundtracks of Jane Austen adaptations and that progressive rock is about as fit for public consumption as most other bedroom activities of teenage boys. It seems that if it’s not under four minutes long with verses, choruses and hooks and a beats-per-minute rate of not less than 100 I’m not interested. Basically, I’m a pop song Stalinist.
I have however of late being making a few inroads into alien territory. I’m fine with country and Americana now, having been eased in via brilliant modern singers and songwriters like Neko Case, Laura Cantrell and Caitlin Rose, and since last year I wouldn’t be without my beloved Have Moicy! And I really ought to be able to handle some traditional English folk by now. I mean, it’s got forms and structures that I should be able to relate to, it’s generally pretty stripped down and played on acoustic guitars, which I’ve always got on better with than their electric, effects-swamped counterparts and there are many transparently brilliant people working in the area, like Richard Thompson and Eliza Carthy. But I’ve never really got to grips with it. I think more than anything it’s the wholesome organic authentic vibe of the genre that puts me off, rather than anything specific in the music – I seem to have no problem enjoying folk songs when they’re delivered in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by ironists like Robyn Hitchcock or The Decemberists.
Anyway, this year I’ve taken the plunge and bought a ticket to the Cambridge Folk Festival, one of the most prestigious events of its type in Europe, which I’ve never been to despite living within stumbling distance for the last twenty years. So in order to get the most out of it I’ve embarked on a short acclimatisation course which involves digging out and listening to music by some of the acts that will be playing. All of which leads me finally to the point of this post, namely to talk about Penguin Eggs, the 1981 album by Nic Jones, who will be making his first major appearance for some considerable time at the festival this year.
Jones was a highly respected guitar and fiddle player much in demand as a session player with four previous solo albums under his belt by the time that he recorded Penguin Eggs, but it’s this record that he’s best known for. It contains nine, mostly traditional, folk songs that are presented elegantly and unfussily – for the bulk of the album, the odd backing vocal, accordion or recorder apart, there’s little or nothing to distract you from Jones’s clear, unmannered vocals and really quite extraordinarily adept guitar playing, which carries these songs as effectively as if he’d hired a full danceband. The guitar seems to fulfil both rhythmic and melodic functions effortlessly, with clipped and perfectly accented chord patterns forming the backing for fluid and lyrical runs of notes. I’ve got no idea how he was able to play like this, but there’s no hint of any studio trickery. The songs are pretty good, too, typically stories of rural or nautical misadventure set to sturdy and attractive tunes. After a couple of plays I found I was actually getting a bit obsessed with this record, and it turns out that I’m not the only one to rate it highly: in 2001 it was voted second-best folk album of all time by listeners of the Mike Harding radio show, and its opening song Canadee-i-o has been covered by Bob Dylan. Noted cultural connoisseur Stewart Lee is also a fan.
Nic Jones’s career was brought to a tragic and abrupt conclusion in 1982 when he was involved in a car accident that left with him with brain damage and permanant problems with physical co-ordination, although he’s still able to play the guitar. He’s only recently started giving a few short stage performances, which makes his appearance on the Folk Festival bill a pretty big deal. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago, but I’m very glad I discovered Penguin Eggs. Maybe folk ain’t as queer as I thought.