There are times, when writing about English folk music, that it’s difficult not to reach for the clichés. Difficult not to dutifully witter on about birdsong, things that swoop and soar, music that looks back to the old whilst looking forward. It’s difficult to not wax poetic about every squeak of a string, every hushed pause.
The self-titled, second album by Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay makes it near impossible not to reach for every single one of those clichés, and a few more besides. There are moments when their two guitars do, indeed, swoop and soar, Ghedi’s six-string and Hay’s twelve-string effortlessly taking flight. They do, indeed, look back to something ancient yet make it new. Sometimes the whole feeling of the album is stilled and churchlike. Whilst it may inspire dreadful clichéd writing, this is, categorically, an album of staggering beauty.
‘Right Edge Deep’ is nothing less than pure pastoral Englishness, buried deep into the grooves. The two guitars tumble over one another, sparkling water cascading over dark stones. It is the coolest relief on the warmest of days, at turns bright and clear, others still and gentle. Both Ghedi and Hay are intricate and playful, using some sort of folkloric magic to turn guitar strings into babbling brooks. The magic is retained for ‘Bog Cotton Jig’, where one guitar plays then falls while the other replaces it. A waterfall of rhythm. There are no voices here, simply the sounds of nature brushing against eighteen strings.
There are no voices here, simply the sounds of nature brushing against eighteen strings.
If ‘Moss Flower’ is a little more insistent then it is only insistent in the way that spring rain drumming against a roof might be. A soft patter that you know will eventually open out to a gentle, green-tinged day. That moment of sweetness, that moment of gentleness, arrives with ‘Bridget Cruise 3rd Air’, a seventeenth-century Irish tune. It is fleeting, glorious and deliciously soothing. For fear of descending, once again, into cliché, Ghedi and Hay weave complex patterns with their virtuosity.
Have you read Benjamin Myers’ remarkable The Perfect Golden Circle? It’s an incredible evocation of English summertime and the creation of crop circles, of the sun fading over wheat fields, of the intersection between real life and an enchanted one. As side one (this is, by the way, an album that begs to be played on vinyl) comes to a close, Myers’ writing seems to have found a soundtrack. ‘Swale Song’ is light and summery; the guitars take on a more recognisably “folk” aspect as they trace the slowly sinking sun, discovering a twilight stillness. It is, however, ‘With the Morning Hills Behind You’ that seems to capture the days of crop-circle building the best. Heavy with the heat of a perfect English summer’s day, you can almost see the dust motes and bugs spiraling from the fields. Rarely has a tune been so well named.
There are moments throughout side two where recognisable influences peep through. Renbourn and Jansch can be heard on the circular, cyclical playing on ‘A Year and A Day’, John Fahey on the experimental ‘Skeleton Dance’. Sometimes the timeless delicacy of Nick Drake casts its spell. At every turn, with every influence, it becomes clear that Ghedi and Hay have created an album of rare instrumental folk.
Listening to this album as the sun starts to sink, you’d swear that garden birds are scattered across the final tracks.
Listening to this album as the sun starts to sink, you’d swear that garden birds are scattered across the final tracks. Those night birds – Dunnocks, Nightingales, Robins, Song Thrush – seem to duet with ‘Seasoned by the Storm’ and ‘When the Blackthorn Blooms’. Both are hypnotic and rhythmic, both hazy and gentle. As with the Welsh lullaby ‘Suo Gân’, there are moments when this one so beautifully sinks into sleep that it almost disappears altogether, leaving space for your garden birds to sing in the last moments of the day.
Finally, ‘Gylfinir’ completes the album with the merest touch of melancholia, written in memoriam for two people close to the duo that were lost during the pandemic. The guitars take on an almost violin-like resonance, providing a thoughtful elegy, a fitting end to an album of careful reflection and midday contemplation.
If writing about English folk can be fraught with cliché it should be noted that the sleeve notes for this album have been written by Mojo writer, Andrew Male. They are as beautiful, as thoughtful, as warm-hearted as the whole of this tremendous album. A gorgeous, mid-summer celebration.
Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay is available from May 26th on Topic Records.