Bonny Light Horseman

By Robert Hann

Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman (Label: 37d03d)

A common recipe for contemporary music labeled as ‘folk’ could be something like the following. Begin with sparse instrumentation, including minimal or no amplification and no effects. Add high and/or pinched vocals delivering tender lyrics. Be sparing with softly-played brass, string, and sustain-pedal piano highlights. Drums may be omitted entirely; if necessary, use brushes or keep them low in the mix.

Though often delectable, the ingredients are not complex and they leave modern folk music susceptible to producing tunes that don’t especially do anything. Bonny Light Horseman, while honoring the simplicity and integrity of many of these musical cues, deftly skirts that common pitfall. Every track on this album is tuneful and engaging. The record has a certain weekend-at-home vibe, but it doesn’t just sit there in the speakers while other things are happening like a lesser collection of similar songs might.

It opens with Anaïs Mitchell singing, “Oh, Napoleon Bonaparte, you’re the cause of my woe, since my bonny light horseman in the war he did go.” That beginning does not mark the start of a concept album on the English experience of the Napoleonic wars, but it is an artful, declarative statement that what follows is an album of contemporary folk made by musicians who have done their traditional folk homework.

‘Blackwaterside,’ for example, is their take on ‘Down by Blackwaterside,’ an Irish folk song. ‘Deep in Love’ includes lyrics lifted from ‘The Water Is Wide,’ a Scottish folk song. ‘Lowlands’ references sailing and “my own true love.” The title and lyrics nod to another traditional, ‘Lowlands Away,’ as well as the American folk music revival in general and early Bob Dylan* in particular.

Yet for all the callbacks, Bonny Light Horseman have their own music to make. There’s no mistaking these songs for 18th century British recreations. They aren’t outtakes from Inside Llewyn Davis, either. With folk history as wind at their back, they have ventured into subtly fresh musical territory. They haven’t discovered an unknown planet in the folk solar system, but they are like woodsmen who have found a new forest full of kindred species and organic delights.

The result is music that is both comfortable and absorbing. Over the course of the album, that combination creates the aural equivalent of meeting someone new at a party with a handshake and, at the end of the night, leaving them with a friendly hug and plans to get together again soon. That kind of thing is more likely to happen when the party includes mutual friends, and there are plenty of familiar faces on this album. Contributing musicians include The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Christian Lee Hutson, Lisa Hannigan and more.

A surprising number of worthwhile, relatively quiet independent albums were released in 2020, e.g. Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, Hutson’s Beginners, etc. But in providing such an appealing assemblage of understated music that also manages to look back at the folk genre and advance it at the same time, Bonny Light Horseman’s self-titled debut is a pleasure to listen to and was perhaps the best of the bunch.

*cf. the title of Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and the words to his ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

Robert Hann: roberthann.dds@gmail.com

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