There’s a dark undercurrent to much of the folk music coming out of the tradition of the British Isles; maybe that has to do with the region’s history. But that brooding vibe pervades the style, adding weight and mystery to the already intriguing music. Welsh-born Gwenifer Raymond’s debut release, You Never Were Much of a Dancer showcases the style, though Raymond describes herself as (among other things) an “American Primitive” musician. Ultimately, her music draws from the folk traditions of both England-Ireland-Scotland-Wales and the American variant.
The album opens with an eerie, foreboding solo fiddle piece called “Off to See the Hangman, Part I.” That title succinctly evokes the sense of doom and dread that Raymond’s fiddle conveys. That brief melody quickly gives way to “Sometimes There’s Blood,” the album’s highlighted single. American Primitive label or not, the song conjures thoughts of both Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin III-era Jimmy Page; Raymond’s flawlessly concise picking communicates emotion while it dazzles in its technical brilliance; as the minor-key tune unfolds, it seems that Raymond is playing multiple guitars at once.
The multi-instrumentalist switches to banjo for “Idumea,” and here the American character of her work becomes much more apparent. Raymond is skilled at creating a mesmerizing feel with a single instrument.
As the album progresses, Raymond continues to switch up both the featured instrument and the approach used to play it. “Face Down Strut” is all speedy, shimmering picking on an acoustic guitar, while “Laika’s Song” evokes a more pastoral feel. “Oh, Command Me Lord!” is a jaunty, uptempo romp on banjo; Raymond’s fingers fly across the instrument’s fretboard, and her unaccompanied performance has a strong percussive character as well.
“Sweep it Up” adds bluesy slide guitar to the mix; in places on “Requiem for John Fahey” the guitarist sounds as if she’s playing a 12-string. One of the most understated cuts on this all-instrumental set, “Dance of the Everlasting Faint” suggests Fairport Convention-era Richard Thompson. And Raymond displays a flash of humor on “Bleeding Finger Blues,” a dizzyingly fast, solo banjo workout that will leave the listener out of breath after its two-minute run time.
The two sections of “Sack ‘em Up, Parts I & II” aren’t remarkably different from one another; the opening section is a meditation, while the second part traffics in more conventional melody. The album wraps up with “It Was All Sackcloth and Ashes,” a tune with a spooky, gothic feel; in contrast to the blaze of notes found on tines like “Bleeding Finger Blues,” it’s an effective study in acoustic guitar minimalism.
If Gwenifer Raymond had set out to craft a collection of songs simply to showcase her staggering instrumental facility, You Never Were Much of a Dancer would be the perfect vehicle. But the album is much more than that; it’s a highly appealing set of performances, one that deserves close—and repeated—listening.