JOHNNY CAMPBELL – Avalon (Subversive Folk SF001)

AvalonThere’s a long story behind Johnny Campbell’s second album Avalon. He is much travelled throughout Europe and the United States and although the record’s title suggests some sort of paradise the songs are inspired by the darker side of life, particularly in the Balkans. Here are songs of poverty and hardship drawing from diverse sources and recorded in a deliberately primitive style – it all makes sense when you hear it.

Avalon opens with the traditional ‘Banks Of The Roses’, fast and almost harsh. Johnny isn’t Irish; in fact you could call him “a citizen of the world” although his nominal base is Huddersfield. He follows that with his own song, ‘Wanderlust’, a song straight from the dust-bowl. In it he name checks Woody Guthrie and you might be reminded of the nostalgia of some of Tom Paxton’s early songs – ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ for example – except that ‘Wanderlust’ has harder edge. Welsh singer Efa Supertramp supplies backing vocals here and throughout the record. ‘Leaver’s Avenue’ is a modern political song – I’m sure I don’t need to explain its theme to you – and Johnny pairs it with the traditional ‘O’Keefe’s Slide’, acoustic guitar with support from Bethan Prosser’s strings.

‘Arthur McBride’ is well known and often over-complicated but here it’s pared back to basics and Johnny’s delivery is almost nonchalant as though seeing off a couple of squaddies is an everyday occurrence. ‘Showtime’ is the second of his US travelling songs and I have to confess that I don’t quite get it but it’s eclipsed by the superb ‘Last Year’. You may be surprised to learn that Johnny has recorded an EP of Robert Burns songs but it merely emphasises his understanding of the roots of traditional music. ‘Last Year’ is lifted from a Swedish folk song with Bethan sounding uncannily like a hurdy-gurdy although Tim Holehouse’s ebow may also contribute to the effect.

‘To The Begging I Will Go’ makes a contrasting pair with ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’; the singer of the former being happy with his lot, the latter not so much. The final ‘Tear Stained Letter’, after the delightful ‘Planxty Kateřina’, is not the Richard Thompson song – more Hank Williams, who gets name checked and Johnny evokes an undefined time of “whiskey soaked rivers” – what a great phrase.

Johnny Campbell has pulled together a remarkable number of styles and subjects to create this record and it all works. It’s an album I could keep on repeat.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.johnnycampbell.co.uk

‘Arthur McBride’ – described as spontaneous and shaky: