John Wesley Harding: Trad Arr Jones

Tradition is a wonderful thing– as long as its left in the past.

John Wesley Harding’s Trad Arr Jones touches on some of the most memorable 19th-century English folk songs recorded in quite some time; unfortunately, all the songs on this album were originally written and recorded in the late 20th century.

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As historical music, Trad Arr Jones would serve as a prime example of British folk songs, with stunning ballads weaving tales of life on the seas, lords’ and ladies’ loves and duels, though the modern origins of the songs make their subject matter humorously anachronistic. Instead of delving into the rich catalog of historic folk, Harding instead covers songs written by Nic Jones in the ’70s and ’80s.

While every track on this album features stunning lyrics and arrangements , capturing the spirit of 19th-century folk, their modern origins ultimately ruin this record’s chances. When dealing with historical music, artists need to throw in their lot with either pure historicism, recreating old sounds and authentic songs, or contemporization, writing in old styles though about modern themes. It’s simply too hard to swallow a song about a lovers’ duel written by someone raised on color television and rock and roll.

Overlooking the songs’ questionable origins, however, Trad Arr Jones is a strong folk album, with complex stories in the album’s ballads, harshly emotive tales of lost loves and brilliant guitar arrangements. If it could claim origins on the far side of 1850, it would stand as one of the best folk collections released in the past few years.

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