Compilations and split albums are always a treat, but rare these days. So is anonymity and novelty in general. Internet convenience robs some of the impetus for us to expand our comfort zones, when we can easily stay comfortable and just go deeper. That’s not a bad thing, you can fall into expertise as easily as into banality. But, from new music, I need both expansion and depth. I bought this album solely because I didn’t know the other three artists Chuck brought along with him and I trusted that he’d know where to find some good writers. I haven’t looked them up since, I think they’re all from the UK, but I don’t care–this review, like my listen to the record, will focus on the quality of the songs. The artists, along with Ragan, are Sam Russo, Jimmy Islip, and Helen Chambers–they each give three songs.

Chuck Ragan: Ragan totally commits to his “presenter” role–his songs are all covers, all by UK songwriters. The best of which is Leatherface‘s “Not Superstitious” done with accompaniment by Chris Wollard. His take on Darren Gibson‘s “This Company” is also a solid sad track; Ragan treats it with patience, a sign that’s it’s a song worth listening to.

Sam Russo: Russo’s songs feature the most diverse instrumentation on the album, which is only some keys, claps, and electric guitar, but it’s his phrasing and delivery that make his songs stand above the rest on the record. He keeps his voice so tense that even a subtle softening, like at the end of the chorus to “Tinned Peaches” feels devastating. The restrained howling in the background of “Rattling Keys” brings the perfect amount of fog to the track. The tempo changes of “Letting Go” shows some bravery, willingness to stretch. It’s his well-conveyed restlessness and effort to develop the songs that make Russo’s set rewarding.

Jimmy Islip: I said earlier I needed both expansion and depth from new music or else it’s hard to care. If I had to choose one or the other, I’d choose expansion, because I get bored easy, and boredom has no place in listening to new music. That’s why I don’t like Jimmy Islip’s songs. They’re just Frank Turner’s bullshit whining with some Brian Fallon bullshit vulnerability, done by a guy who’s not as creative as they are. Same strumming pattern on them all. Billy Bragg thrice removed, filtered through Frank Turner and Flogging Molly, diluted of all its urgency.

Helen Chambers: Her role as the album’s closer, the fact that Chuck covered one of her songs to open the record, and that she’s the only woman represented on the entire record gave me high hopes for Helen Chambers. I at least needed something to recover from Jimmy Islip. She’s got sort of a toned-down Anne Briggs vocal thing going on, but her guitar is boring. The last track, the a cappella “Speak Your Name,” is Chambers’ best here. To my ears, she’s trying to do to 60’s English folkers like Anne Briggs and John & Beverly Martyn what Chuck does to the Cash and Carter Family, but she’s not all the way there yet. “Speak Your Name” is a great end to the record, but Chamber’s set overall is lackluster.

Chuck Ragan deserves so much credit for following through on this project, exposing the world to a slew of artists from across the pond. It’s hard to keep Chuck’s non-stop touring schedule straight, but I think this record comes after Ragan’s solo tour through the UK, a US tour with the UK band Sharks, and before he goes back to the UK in Sept/Oct for a stretch of Revival Tour shows. That’s an incredible amount of energy he’s dedicated and it needs to be appreciated. I think it’s a beautiful way to say thanks to UK fans who have been long supportive of many American folk/punk/porch bands recently, especially Ragan and Gaslight. It’s a great ideal that he’s putting into practice, that established musicians should help the next crop ripen. However, the purpose of exposing artists is not to attract appreciation for yourself, but for the artists being featured–and on this attempt only one of the new folks makes an impression.

Chuck Ragan – Not Superstitious
Sam Russo – Tinned Peaches
Helen Chambers – Speak Your Name
Jimmy Islip – 1990

Buy the 4-Way Split, Buy it on iTunes (UK link, but also available in US), Chuck Ragan’s Site, Sam Russo’s Facebook, Jimmy Islip’s Facebook, Helen Chambers’ Bandcamp

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.

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