Up until now James Elkington, it seems, has been content to keep a low profile. Despite contributions to an unwieldy array of modern folk’s best records – including releases from genre luminaries such as Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley and Michael Chapman – ‘Wintres Woma’ marks Elkington’s first step into the spotlight. Within moments of the album’s start, it’s hard not to wonder why he hasn’t gone solo sooner; sprightly opener ‘Make It Up’ brings to mind a raft of influences – perhaps most notably Nick Drake, the track isn’t unlike a sped up ‘Cello Song’ – but more importantly it also casts Elkington as his own man.
It’s Elkington’s guitar work that most readily captures the ear; fast-flowing and nimble, it’s no wonder that his string work is in such high demand. However, it’s actually his words and voice that cast him as a unique figure. With an imaginative, vivid lyrical approach and a craftsman’s eye for detail, ‘Wintres Woma’s charmingly off-beat lyrics set it apart from the often more conventional themes found on the records of his peers. Elkington’s delivery likewise stands out; calmly composed and smoothly enunciated; his vocal melodies glide swan-like over the often far more energetic guitar work. It’s a sonic juxtaposition that allows Elkington to carve a small but confident niche for himself in a busy genre bustling with talent.
As with so many entries in the style, ‘Wintres Woma’ is an album deeply centred around and anchored by Elkington’s guitar and voice. While they do form the album’s bedrock, there’s enough sonic variety and extra instrumentation that the album never risks appearing undercooked or bareboned – the undulating, upright bass of ‘Sister Of Mine’ gives the song an undeniably retro-slant, a definite nod towards the classic late ’60s/’70s folk boom. Elsewhere, however, the palette is more timeless, as much in keeping with the aesthetics of modern US folk as anything from a few decades ago. The misty cello of ‘Wading The Vapors’ and clanging banjo of ‘The Hemit Census’ offer discreet, tasteful enhancements to songs strong enough that they would have held up with nothing more than Elkington’s solo performance. Indeed, some of the album’s finest moments are largely sans band – the placid meditations of ‘When I Am Slow’ jettisons all but Elkington’s guitar/vox combo and quietly tinkling piano, in one of the album’s most reflective moments. Album standout ‘The Greatness Yet To Come’ likewise focuses in on Elkington’s guitar work; it’s not until minutes into the song that warm washes of strings bathe the track in a sun-dazed, heady ambience – throwing the song far from it’s original course down an unexpected but thoroughly rewarding detour path.
Ultimately, though, even at its most ornate ‘Wintres Woma’ is still a comparatively sparse record, Elkington clearly being aware of the fragility of his own songs and how easy they could be suffocated under layers of unnecessary arrangement. ‘Wintres Woma’ is an album of crystalline clarity; one where every note is accounted for and where every small touch exists to serve the song. It’s a carefully made album but not self-consciously so, and is all the better for it. Meticulously crafted and performed with finesse, this is an excellent debut album from Elkington. Although previous work cast him as one-to-watch (both as a band leader in The Zincs and as a helping hand on various other albums) it is here on ‘Wintres Woma’ that James Elkington has come into his own.