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Never So Red, Frankie Archer – a review

Explore Frankie Archer's 'Never So Red' EP, where traditional folk meets bold electronic innovation, addressing timeless themes with a modern twist.

Release Date
3 November 2023
Never So Red, Frankie Archer
Frankie Archer's debut EP blends digi-folk with traditional elements, challenging outdated narratives through her music. Her stark storytelling in songs like 'Alone Maids Do Stray' confronts issues like sexual violence with chilling clarity. Collaborating with Jim Moray, her EP 'Never So Red' innovates with electronic sounds while addressing serious themes, engaging listeners with a mix of authenticity and modernity. A powerful statement from an increasingly essential artist.

Frankie Archer is not the first person to use loops and electronics over traditional music. Pioneers such as Martyn Bennett, Eliza Carthy and Jim Moray (more on whom later) have gone before her. However, there can be no doubt that her particular brand of digi-folk has the potential to make her a leading folk voice on the current scene. A combination of distinctive sound, marketing know-how and (perhaps most importantly) politics have caught the eye as well as the ear. I recently took my 14-year-old daughter and her friends to an all-day folk event and Archer’s set had them briefly transfixed, their attention span only broken by the immediate dive onto TikTok to find and follow their new favourite artist.

Ironically, given the attention that Archer is getting for her electronic approach, the key track here is the unflinching ‘Alone Maids Do Stray’, performed alone with a plucked violin. Although entirely self-written, the melody could be mistaken for something from the tradition, which is undoubtedly the point. The listener is lulled into dull-sensed security, believing it to be yet another wooing song in which a man spies a woman on the road and has his way with her. As the final verse arrives, Archer peels back the cliches and tells it exactly like it is. “I raped her in the green bush that morning in May”, she sings, her cold, matter-of-fact delivery setting up the horrific, carefree shrug that follows: “These things they can happen when alone maids do stray”. It puts me in mind of the Birmingham ballad, ‘Mary Ashford’s Tragedy‘ [Roud V9975], most recently recorded by Bonfire Radicals, in which a young woman is raped and murdered and forced to admit that she brought it on herself through her “dancing delight”. The true story it depicts took place in 1817. That Archer still feels the need underline the violent injustice – the disgust and despair barely concealed behind her dogged performance – only serves to underline the importance of these songs. Until things change, we need to keep singing them.

Women are not responsible for men’s projected feelings and don’t deserve to be punished for them.

Frankie Archer

Not that ‘Maids’ is a one-off. As the press release explains, “Never So Red challenges out-of-date and harmful narratives and stereotypes, in traditional music and in everyday life. Women are not responsible for men’s projected feelings and don’t deserve to be punished for them. Women are powerful and wise, not voiceless victims. Sexual violence happens and should be called out, not swept under the rug. Chasing and pressure is not the way to go about love and sex. Expression of love and sexuality should be free for everyone.”

The opening track, Archer’s take on the old stalwart, ‘Oxford City’ [Roud 218], is revelatory. The singer’s steely gaze watches as the oft-told story unfolds and she narrates it to us in what feels like real-time. This is no longer a tale from centuries past; it’s happening now, the glass of wine spiked, the Rohypnol just out of shot. Again, there’s something about the cool, calm, collected manner in which Archer delivers the narrative that chills the air. There are no histrionics. The drama is all there in the near-stillness of the performance, only the slip-sliding fiddle (with hints of Eliza Carthy’s Imagined Village-era style in the double-tracking) breaking the digital hypnosis.

What makes Archer’s take on ‘Lucy Wan’ [Roud 234] particularly interesting is the inclusion of two new verses that hound the bloodthirsty protaganist to his own grizzly death. As she explained to Tradfolk on its initial release in August 2022, “As a female folk musician, it is irritating and boring when, in song after song, women are murdered, raped, deceived, burned – you name it – by men. ‘Lucy Wan’ is a perfect example of this. Man impregnates woman, man murders woman, lies about it to his mother, runs away and ultimately gets away with it. What is the moral of the story? Folk songs don’t need to have morals of course, but this story is a harmfully overused archetype. I wanted to give a voice to Lucy in my version of the song, because in most renditions all she can do is cry and tell her brother he has made her pregnant, and that’s all we hear from her because he swiftly kills her. I gave Lucy Wan power and a voice in the song, just as she and endless other women in endless other folk songs deserve.”

Again, it’s the production and performance that really drives all of this home. After all, even the most important messages run the risk of going unnoticed if its delivery fails to catch the attention. There’s no risk of that on Never So Red. It’s a startling sound – rarely slick, often glitchy, occasionally jarring, always well-judged. In Jim Moray, her co-producer, the artist has found a kindred spirit – someone who appears sympathetic to her cause and never once seeks to dominate proceedings. We know from Archer’s pre-Moray recordings (‘Over the Border’, as well as the aforementioned ‘Lucy Wan’) that hers is an idiosyncratic approach, and it remains fully represented and undiluted here. Their partnership brings a fuller, more rounded sheen to her singular vision.

You sense that the two of them must’ve had a helluva lotta fun putting together the last two tracks on the EP. ‘Peacock Followed the Hen’ and ‘O the Bonny Fisherlad’ [Roud 3150] are as much about the exploration of those old folk rhythms as anything else, the former a joy to listen to as Archer’s native Geordie dialect dances around a fiddle tune and an increasingly psychedelic arrangement, the multi-layered vocals reminiscent of ‘Over the Border’. The final track is a full-on 90s rave, despite what the initial 37 seconds suggest. It’s the aural equivalent of the mixed-media cover art – a cartoon collision of the traditional and the digital. Gloriously irreverent stuff from a transfixing artist with a lot to say.

Never So Red by Frankie Archer is out on November 3rd and is available from the artist’s Bandcamp page.