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Though its title is taken from the Old English term for "the sound of winter," much of James Elkington's solo debut bears a distinctly autumnal vibe. With a feel that harks back to the British singer/songwriters of the early '70s, Wintres Woma ultimately seems to capture the slow seasonal slide from fall's gentle unbuttoning into an icier, more frigid landscape.
Elkington hails from the U.K. but makes his home in Chicago, where they know a thing or two about winter. He has a varied history that includes fronting indie rockers The Zincs and co-leading art-folk outfit The Horse's Ha with Freakwater's Janet Beveridge Bean. But over the past couple of years before beginning work on Wintres Woma, he had been working primarily as an accompanist, playing guitar and other instruments with British folk-rock legends like Richard Thompson and Michael Chapman, as well as Steve Gunn, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and others.
Elkington's first solo statement was cut in just five days at Wilco's sonic headquarters, The Loft. It seems to key in on the sensibility of artists like Thompson, Chapman, and their peers, who blurred the lines between folk, rock, and jazz in the '70s with their nimble guitar work, and combined it with a poetic lyrical bent. The delicate-but-precise acoustic guitar patterns at the core of Wintres Woma sometimes feel like descendents of Nick Drake's complex finger-picking latticework, especially when Elkington's lines are countered by Nick Macri's fluid stand-up bass on the speedy "Make It Up."
The only track not written by Elkington, an instrumental take on the traditional Scottish folk song "The Parting Glass," is so adventurously re-harmonized that it scarcely resembles its source, bringing to mind the trailblazing 1960s acoustic explorations of British guitarist Davey Graham. And the combination of Elkington's sonorous baritone and virtuosic fretboard forays makes a strong case for him as the spiritual heir to the late U.K. folk legend Bert Jansch.
But for all of Wintres Woma's links to a scene that was approaching its peak when Elkington was a zygote, the dominant artistic voice here is an unflinchingly singular one. The lyrics, in particular, travel a path that seems entirely their own, with imagery unusual enough to force your synapses into new configurations, and a bittersweetness palpable enough to take you by the tear ducts and squeeze.
"In the drug harbor, friends became verbs, chanting in squares the where and the why," he sings in "When I Am Slow" atop a folkish guitar melody that could be either minutes or hundreds of years old. "Shut that accordion mouth and stop crying fat wedding-band tears," he admonishes the subject of "The Hermit Census." And it's tough to imagine anyone else managing to slip a line like "entrails were made into garlands to welcome my reign" into a ballad as warmly homey-sounding as the crepuscular, harmonica-laced "Sister of Mine."
The arrangements on the self-produced album are spare (if not stark) from start to finish, and mostly played by Elkington himself, with occasional assists on violin, viola, percussion, and the aforementioned bass and cello. With Elkington's intimate, plum wine vocals and tactile guitar work at the core throughout, each track feels like a stylishly scrawled diary entry we've somehow wrangled the permission to read.
But whether Elkington is whistling through the graveyard on the ironically perky-sounding "Grief Is Not Coming," recounting the surreal dream state of "Greatness Yet to Come," or navigating his way through the nightmarish visions of "Hollow in Your House," his combination of timeless folk flavorings and an artful modernity blend into a wistful but never forlorn kind melancholy. It's the kind that steps far enough back from the shifting of the seasons of life to know that the whole thing is just a dream to be played out, a dance to follow through, on the way to becoming one with the true sound of winter.