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The musician, Jacken Elswyth, stands in a field holding a crook.

Jacken Elswyth, Six Static Scenes – a review

Six Static Scenes, the new album from Jacken Elswyth, may be the first collection I've ever reviewed that was specifically influenced by the "slips and mistakes" found on old folk recordings. As such, it's an intriguing and unexpected creation; challenging, experimental, but not without moments of real meditation.

The album sleeve for Six Static Scenes by Jacken Elswyth, featuring a horse in a stone circle, grazing beneath a dark background of chalky mountains
Release Date
22 July 2022
Six Static Scenes, Jacken Elswyth
Taking the rattles and buzzes of old field recordings as her inspiration, Jacken Elswyth has created a banjo album that explores the energies and frissons most of us barely notice. A unique album, unlike anything else on the British folk scene in 2022.

Most 21st-century folk musicians and singers delve into Topic Records’ The Voice of the People in the hope of finding songs. For many, it’s the nearest thing they’ll come to hearing traditional songs in their rawest forms. But it’s not what you might call easy listening, and it takes a fairly determined ear to derive pure joy from the vast vaults of scratchy field recordings, often of amateur, aging singers whose larynxes were well past their prime. For Jacken Elswyth, however, those idiosyncracies provided all the inspiration she needed to sit down and record Six Static Scenes.

If Jacken Elswyth is a new name to you, perhaps you’re better acquainted with her band, Shovel Dance Collective, prime movers in the UK’s growing “Weird Folk” scene that James Hadfield wrote about recently. Follow her on Instagram and you’ll find that she’s also a keen banjo luthier, and the founder of the Betwixt & Between label. All of this comes together on the new album, released on Neolithic Recordings.

Each of the static scenes presented here takes its inspiration from either a legendary banjo player (Hobart Smith, Dock Boggs, Dink Roberts and Margaret Barry) or a banjo technique. But that’s not to say you should expect covers of any kind. Bear in mind that Elswyth is interested in the rattle and the fret buzz as much as the melody. If each tune were an old car, this artist finds beauty in the unoiled door hinges as much as the design. The fact that it’s decaying and rusty is neither here nor there. You can still get into it and take it someplace, and – oh! – would you listen to the way that engine coughs and rattles? This thing is alive.

If that sounds somewhat eccentric, then maybe this isn’t the album for you. For this reviewer, however, that sense of life is attractive. It’s not polished and clean, with all its edges knocked off. It is improvised, in-the-moment, intrepid. It’s also somewhat hypnotic. Rather than take a well-known tune like ‘Arkansas Traveller’ and reproduce it note for note, Elswyth uses ‘Scene 1, After Hobart Smith’ to zoom in on a fragment and then give it a workout that borders on obsession. Starting with her chosen phrase in its simplest form, she works it and works it, turning it over again, adding minute flourishes, applying intensity… until it cascades down into a single drone (a sound that is never far from the centre of her work).

Six Static Scenes is all about attention to the details most of us choose to skip over

In a sense, the album is all about attention to the details most of us choose to skip over. ‘Scene 2, After Dock Boggs’ tugs at a harmonic bugle motif from Boggs’s recording of ‘Coal Creek March’, showering it in metallic sound (there’s that drone again) not dissimilar to the mantra of an Indian tambura. ‘Scene 3, After Dink Roberts’ is perhaps the nearest the album gets to a standard piece of rhythmic banjo playing, as the artist takes ‘Fox Chase’ as a leaping-off point and charts a three-minute exploration into the drone-like effects of a five-note riff. (I’m reviewing this on the hottest day ever documented in the UK, and the combined effects are somewhat psychedelic. To recreate: turn the music and the radiators up and head off into a trance.)

Scenes 4a & 4b are experiments in resonation, each taking the notes of the same chord and processing them in different ways. The first makes use of a two-finger plucking technique, while the second (and the most intriguing track on the album) involves a bow and a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs. The latter (‘Scene 4b’) is an unsettling piece that makes full use of Elswyth’s beloved drones. It might be considered meditative if it weren’t for the abrasive textures that a bowed banjo produces, but it’s a fascinating aural experiment nonetheless.

Elswyth’s sleevenotes explain that she sat down at the microphone for ‘Scene 5’ with the intention of creating, “something with edges and corners”. I can’t find a better description for it than that. Of all the scenes, this is the one most likely to do you damage. Scabrous and serrated, it comes at you like a sea urchin in a sock. Picking it up would not be wise. Unsure which of its spines will penetrate next, it’d take a brave person to wear it.

To say we’re back on more comfortable ground with the final track would be to miss the point of Six Static Scenes entirely. As with the album as a whole, ‘Scene 6, After Margaret Barry’ isn’t about taking Barry’s well-loved ‘Her Mantle So Green’ and getting everyone singing along. It’s not even a variation on a theme. It’s about reacting to an energy – following a frisson in the spaces that cushioned the original notes.

Six Static Scenes won’t be to everyone’s taste – experimental music rarely is. But in its unpredictable source of inspiration and its use of old tunes and source recordings, it is entirely unique. That’s a scene I can get behind.

Six Static Scenes comes out on July 22nd on Neolithic Recordings. For more information on Jacken Elswyth, head to jackenelswythmusic.com.