Wintres Woma, the first solo album from the Chicago-based English guitarist James Elkington, opens with a display of raw technique that’s enough to leave you dizzy. If there was an acoustic-folk-guitar version of Guitar Hero, Wintres Woma opener “Make It Up” would be the last song you beat on the game’s final level, its version of DragonForce’s “Through The Fire And Flames.” It’s a thick and deep and elaborate acoustic groove, and it sounds vaguely like five guitarists playing at once, but it’s not. It’s all Elkington. Later on, an electric guitar comes murmuring over that acoustic groove, but that’s Elkington, too; he played and arranged nearly all the instruments on the album. The sheer force of Elkington’s virtuosity is an attraction unto itself, but the amazing thing about it isn’t the playing. It’s the way Elkington uses that gift as a means rather than an end. “Make It Up” is a hangdog lament pushed along by gentle, pulsing percussion. Elkington isn’t just showing off; he’s creating a mood, and he’s doing what he’s doing within the context of a simple, lovely song. A song with vocals, even.
Elkington has been at this for a long time, but he’s been putting his skills in the service of other people’s visions rather than his own. Elkington has played in bands — the Zincs, the Horse’s Ha — but he’s done most of his work as a sideman, playing with fellow quiet, thoughtful axe-wreckers like Richard Thompson, Michael Chapman, Steve Gunn, and Jeff Tweedy. Elkington and his folk-guitar hero peer Nathan Salsburg released a collaborative album a couple of years ago, but Wintres Woma is his first time working entirely on his own. And while it’s clear that Elkington could’ve taken his place alongside William Tyler and Daniel Bachman in the new pantheon of instrumental fingerpicking masters, he’s gone another way. He’s still playing like an absolute beast, but he’s also presenting himself as a quiet, contemplative singer-songwriter. And somehow, that makes his work even more impressive.
There’s only one instrumental on Wintres Woma, a delicate and lovely 94-second piece called “The Parting Glass.” The rest of the time, he’s singing in a conversational, matter-of-fact burr. He’s not a showy vocalist, but he gets the job done, layering his own backing ahhs and musing confidently. Elkington likes to claim that he’s not making folk music but merely drawing on folk traditions to get his own Englishman-abroad thoughts across. But Elkington also named his album after an Old English phrase — it means “the sound of winter” — and there’s something endearingly anachronistic about the way he uses lyrical imagery: “Grief is not born of the astral ape / To furnish your days without release / And make your mouth a scornful crease.” And even if his lyrics aren’t necessarily going to change your life, it’s cool that they’re there, that he’s not just content to let his guitar do all the talking.
Still, the sound of this thing is the real selling point here. Elkington recorded the album at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago, and that’s a great place to record music like this. The album sounds sharp and pristine and layered in a way that most of Elkington’s solo-acoustic peers never get a chance to equal. And while the focus is squarely on Elkington’s voice and guitar, there’s still other stuff happening here: Strings on one track, a banjo solo on another, a lonely harmonica-honk, a mournful organ. And after “Make It Up,” we don’t hear too many other thick clusters of notes. Elkington isn’t a showoff, and there’s a simplicity to his bluesy leads and quiet reveries.
Elkington isn’t Nick Drake, but Wintres Woma has the same full, oaky quality to the recording that Pink Moon does. It’s great zone-out music, music for staring out windows and getting your thoughts together. And during a time when we can’t help but get tiny stress seizures everytime we pull out our phones and check our newsfeeds, there’s real value to an album like this. It’s a balm, a shelter. And we’re going to need a whole lot of music that can function like that. “Take your time any afternoon,” Elkington counsels on the album’s closer. It’s good advice, and he’s made a piece of music that might help you follow it.
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