Vikesh Kapoor – The Ballad of Willy Robbins

vikesh Mama Bird Recording Co. in Portland seem to have a knack for trawling the vast, vast ocean of folky, solo acoustic guitar singer-songwriters and from all the millions of average plodders, plucking the rare gems who somehow manage to stand out in what is such a very, very crowded field.

That’s not all they release, of course, but of their two releases which have grabbed me the most, first Barna Howard and now this excellent, excellent album are incredibly minimal affairs. And yet still, striking records towards which I gravitated pretty much from the first listen. Never mind standing out from the field when it comes to solo acoustic singer-songwriters, but being instantly and obviously compelling is even more unusual.

The Ballad of Willy Robbins is apparently a bit of a concept album, in that sense that it was apparently inspired by a New York Times article about modern blue-collar workers. In other ways this record is a genuine throwback, as you can possibly tell from the cover art, to the line of acoustic protest music which winds from old traditional working ballads to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger through Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and even Bruce Springsteen. There are a bunch of lofty comparisons in that one line, and I don’t want to get the impression I am over-praising, because obviously Kapoor is not there yet – nothing like – but this album manages to capture something of the compassion and hope, and the bleakness and anger of that old-style songwriting.

The record itself is about the current woes of the American working and lower-middle classes and the destruction wrought by the evaporation of work and oppression of joblessness and financial hardship. Apart from the old-fashioned sound of the music, this way of addressing wider principles by simultaneously railing against political issues and exploring the domestic damage they cause is probably what I would say links this most strongly to older social and political protest music.

For all the minimalism there are moments of slide guitar and violin accompaniment which lend The Ballad of Willy Robbins some texture, and the last couple of tunes are rather plush full band affairs.  And for all it sounds like folk song at times, there are slightly more country-tinged moments in there, and one of the standout tracks, Carry Me, Home, sounds somewhat like the brilliant Elvis Perkins and this keeps the album from getting monotonous or suffering from a kind of single-paced drift which can plague this kind of record.

I’ve not really been listening to this all that long, of course, so there are still songs which pass me by a little, but when the vinyl is released (early next year apparently) I will most certainly be buying it and playing it rather a lot. Folk music, eh. Who’d have thought that as the Lumineers have made it so utterly reviled I’d be gravitating back to this kind of minimal, lovely, folk-influenced recording. Folk is dead – long live folk! It reminds me of when the NME and the Guardian were sounding the death-knell of guitar music by lamenting the artistic paucity of bands like Viva Brother, as if they were entirely unaware the the next batch of rough, lo-fi tunesmiths were already bubbling under and about to give the genre some much-needed refreshment.

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