I will be a pilgrim
The Underground Heroes of Happiness
An album of folk/classical guitar tunes paired with kosmische-like vintage keys, giving a beautiful, celebratory and sometimes pastoral feel.
It follows a long line of like-minded and superb work by main man Craig Fortnam, taking in two earlier Arch Garrison albums, plus three under North Sea Radio Orchestra along with his wife Sharron and a cast of regular collaborators. Here Craig is joined by James Larcombe who is also part of NSRO, the William D Drake band and Stars of Battledress (of whom more later in the month).
‘The oldest road’ and the title track leap out on first listen, giving a sense of the ancient pathways running underneath our 21st century lives – the tunes are sturdy but they also bring a welcome level of whimsy missing from most modern discourse, not to mention modern pop music.
Sharron makes an appearance on the utterly lovely duet ‘O sweet tomorrow’, a brilliantly wrong-footing waltz rhythm with intertwining classical guitar lines, chimes and brushed hi-hats.
‘Other people’ follows and takes that thread of shifting time signatures, giving a hint of the avant garde in the service of hummable tunes.
Similarly, the beguiling ‘Six feet under yeah’ swings along on a synth bass pulse, reaching a distinctly prog-pop bridge – the arrangement is superbly inventive, synth and guitar lines swapping and overlapping to great effect, and you’re likely to be singing it to yourself all day long. It’s also folk music given a fresh and vibrant twist.
In fact it's hard to keep track of all the memorable tunes - 'Bubble' is another one, a circling bassline folding over itself while twinkling bells and meandering synth lines chime support.
Two gorgeous instrumentals act like chapter headings, ‘Vamp 1’ and Vamp 2’, with the modal Malian style of Ali Farka Touré, among others, a clear influence. In fact, on second listen it’s possible to trace that influence through the entire album. It seems Fortnam has forged a sound that could only be English, while drawing on a variety of global styles and traditions.
The result sounds completely natural and unforced, a music quietly ecstatic and transportative, and another minor masterpiece in the Fortnam body of work.
Arch Garrison is the acoustic vehicle of North Sea Radio Orchestra mainstays Craig Fortnam and James Larcombe. Their latest album I Will Be A Pilgrim sees songwriter and composer Fortnam examine his love for the countryside of southern England, aided by his trusty nylon string guitar and Larcombe’s piano and organ.
From the off it is apparent that Fortnam’s engagement with his chosen landscape –and with his chosen musical form – runs deeper than your average folky pastoralia. There are complex relationships at work on this otherwise simple collection of songs – most notably those between man, environment and the passing of time. Opener Where The Green Lane Runs, for example, makes reference to Captain Oates, hinting at hostility and the need for self-sacrifice in a seemingly hospitable world.
Exquisite and surprisingly complex guitar playing is always to the fore.Everything All is propelled along by a fleet-fingered motif that owes much to both classical Spanish and African musical traditions. Two linked instrumentals, Vamp 1 and Vamp 2, further emphasise the influence of African guitar music, and serve to remind us that ‘folk’ music, even a kind of folk music that is inextricably linked to a certain landscape or locality, can and should be an open and inclusive form.
But I Will Be A Pilgrim is not just about the guitar. The synths that chime with the birdsong at the end of The Oldest Road – a song about the ancient Ridgeway path – are anything but incongruous. Like much of the record it serves as a lesson that ancient landscapes exist alongside, rather than separate from, the technological advances of the modern world.
In terms of overall sound Arch Garrison veer close to a kind of baroque chamber-folk located somewhere between the late-60s Nick Drake/Donovan-inspired boom and the softer end of Robyn Hitchcock’s musical spectrum. But to their credit they never settle on one sonic idea for too long. The beginning of the title track has an almost progressive feel to it, and indeed much of the album has a kind of Canterbury prog atmosphere (minus the vast, ridiculous layers and twenty-minute songs of course), all the more so because Fortnam’s voice carries a passing resemblance to Robert Wyatt’s. But despite being hard to pin down I Will Be A Pilgrim has a pleasingly focussed reflexivity, summed up in songs like Other People, which begins with an impressive flourish of guitar before settling down into a meditation on passivity. It is a clever, understated delight.
"I Will Be A Pilgrim' is another example of English folk music's ability to update endlessly, folding fleet modernity into a timeless, ever-rejuvenating continuum.....In aligning post-war cultural memories with a cherished ideal of old Albion, I Will Be A Pilgrim is like an ancient, steep-sided country lane, tarmacked sometime in the 20th Century, and still allowing traffic today.
For King of the Down
As musical director of the North Sea Radio Orchestra, Craig Fortnam has an almost unlimited palette with which to colour his compositions. Since 2000, this London-based chamber music collective (Whose line-up can vary from two to twenty members) have joined the dots between a certain strain of English classical, early baroque, folk, the kind of eccentric library and soundtrack themes celebrated by Trunk Records, and the art-rock tradition of bands like the Cardiacs, with whom NSRO have a shared pool of collaborators and supporters. I’ve enjoyed much of their work, appreciating their serious-minded blurring of boundaries between Bagpuss and Benjamin Britten, Vaughn Williams and Vernon Elliot, their evocation of a mythical, dream-like pastoral Englishness drawn as much, it seems, from London bedsit flights of fancy and memories of early 70s children’s television, as from the more highbrow realms of Aldeburgh and Glyndebourne. Too often, however, their performances can seem prim and overly polite, the reverent musical settings of poems by Tennyson and Blake coming across as merely chintzy and twee.
Happily, in his first solo venture as Arch Garrison, Fortnam has largely managed to avoid these tendencies, playing to the same compositional strengths as his work with the NSRO, but arranging his plaintive, bittersweet melodies in a much sparer framework. Accompanying himself on just acoustic guitar and Philicorda transistor organ, it’s a joy to hear him step up to the microphone, his Cotswolds accent charmingly unaffected and almost childlike in the way it conveys a sense of wonder and bewilderment at the natural world around him. Syd Barrett and Robert Wyatt are obvious antecedents, though the artist Fortnam most closely resembles vocally is Jason Pegg of Clearlake. Often slightly flat and missing notes happily, his singing couldn’t be more different to that of his wife Sharron, whose pure, cut-glass tones are a distinctive feature of the North Sea Radio Orchestra. And while she helps out in Arch Garrison too, most notably taking lead vocal on ‘Roman Road,’ it’s the undisguised flaws in Craig Fortnam’s own performances that lend this record such heart-warming emotional honesty.
Said honesty doesn’t mean, however, that King of the Down isn’t often deceptively complex. ‘Here’s to the End of the Road,’ seems at first like a wistful love song, but a closer listen reveals ambivalent, darker overtones: “I held you down while they cuffed you and took you downtown.” ‘The Days Don’t Feel the Same’ bubbles along like a mountain brook, but is an account of winter depression and everyday stress, partly relieved by the first stirrings of spring and the stark beauty of nature. Fortnam’s untrained voice is offset by his highly accomplished guitar playing, incorporating classical, modal folk and the distinct influence of Nick Drake into a unique and fluid whole. In the background the vintage electric organ impersonates woodwind and harmonium convincingly, and takes on a droning, fuzzy, neo-psychedelic quality on the gorgeously blurred ‘Peek-A-Boo,’ leading to a magical psych-folk coda.
Just as with the NSRO, King of the Down evokes a definite sense of place, specifically the rolling landscapes of Southern England, with all their characteristic landmarks and responsiveness to the changing seasons, and the histories and resonances to be found even beneath the bustle of the major population centres. “Take a walk from East Cheam to the cricket ground,” Fortnam suggests, on the 3 /4 time ‘Stone on the Pound,’ but mostly this record evokes the English countryside, and contemplation of its minor mysteries and low-key delights. “There’s a hole in the sky and I don’t know why,” he ponders on ‘The Vapour Trail,’ “But it could be our saving grace.” Such downbeat optimism is typical of the record. Away from the possibilities of the orchestra, Arch Garrison prove that less can be more, and that our limitations are often the very things that set us free.