Jim Moray is a controversial figure within folk circles. His daring introduction of computer-generated electronics and beats into his arrangements of trad folk songs has divided fans, some arguing that he is successfully updating folk music for a new generation, others that his radical reinterpretations of traditional songs constitute an act of cultural vandalism. Those who choose the latter camp will miss out on the enjoyable and accomplished piece of work that is Skulk.
On Skulk the emphasis is more on the acoustic. When electronic sounds do appear they never draw attention to themselves, as they might in the hands of a lesser artist, but work subtly to help deliver the full narrative power of the songs. On album opener The Captains Apprentice, ambient noise and enhanced sax weave around the regretful tale of child abuse. On Hind Etin, Moray takes a reconstructed child ballad and turns it into a miniature rock epic, complete with shimmering electric guitar.
Moray is a natural story-teller and a talented arranger, as demonstrated by the chiming beds of instruments that make up The Golden Glove and Lord Douglas. On some songs, like the aforementioned Hind Etin, or the startling reinvention of Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love, his desire to express himself becomes one with the lyrics and music. At moments like these, the songs become vehicles for his own desire to express himself and the result is incredible.
Unfortunately his singing doesn’t always live up to the potential hinted at by the splendid arrangements or do full justice to the lyrics. On some songs it sounds as though he’s playing a role, rather than really expressing himself. It’s a role he plays very well and his performance on songs such as If It’s True or Courting Is A Pleasure get the job done effectively. But they fail to reach the heights of expression that he seems to deliver so effortlessly on other tracks. This won’t be a problem for listeners who simply want an album of good tunes, of which there are plenty. However it’s the frustrating, tantalizing glimpses of true inspiration that really make the album worth having.
It’s on these songs that he reaches a timeless authenticity that completely affirms his desire to update and experiment, and his place in the folk pantheon. Those who accuse him of heresy miss the point. With a little more confidence, Jim Moray could become one of the most important folk music figures of the 21st century. The potential is there. He simply needs to deliver.