The ‘nu-folk’ & ‘anti-folk’ boon – an adaptation of sixties-style folk, reincarnated for quirky sensibilities in the 2000s – has dissipated.
Of that school, it is Kate Stables’ This Is The Kit who has shown the most gradual but substantial artistic evolution across her four albums. Pushing against the orthodoxies of folk-pop, she has invited a broader range of ideas that draw from psychedelia, jazz, French pop and African rhythms.
The five-year difference between second album Wriggle Out The Restless and 2015’s Bashed Out seemed to highlight a desire to explore these characteristics, but it’s on the latest album Moonshine Freeze where they have been fully realised, its economical and instinctive structures leading to the band’s most significant breakthrough to date.
Modern Northern Irish mindset
Supporting her at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast earlier this summer was another songwriter capable of welcoming worldly styles into folk, Joshua Burnside.
The 2017 Northern Ireland Music Prize winner is one of the few to successfully and darkly tap into a modern Northern Irish mindset – religious allusions in the ‘The Good Word’ and all – with more conviction than grandeur. Burnside’s debut Ephrata’s greatness lay in its conjuration of seemingly incongruous elements – Latin rhythms and experimental production techniques – into familiar Irish territory. Tonight though, rather than recreate the panoramic dynamism of his full-band performance, solo electric guitar pairs with his voice of considerable range and control.
Restraint and reverence
With each This Is The Kit album comes an incrementally expansive approach. Tonight pulls predominantly from 2017’s Moonshine Freeze and 2015’s Bashed Out, with some obscure covers – a solo cover of their label-mate Alabaster dePlume, and some in-the-moment set-list amendments.
Opening with the climb of prog-tinged ‘Silver John’ from Bashed Out, its gentle restraint shows reverence for the space they’re in – the First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street. Sax breaks and hypnotic worldly percussion elevate Moonshine Freeze‘s ‘Two Pence Piece’ from conventional folk foundations, while the increasingly spiritual lyrical outlook develops upon the English literary-inclined bedroom balladeering heard on her first two LPs, Krulle Bol and Wriggle Out The Restless.
The band coast with fluid chemistry, Jamie Whitby-Coles’ circular percussion fuses with Rozi Plain’s low end-heavy bass playing, and whose harmonies prove perfect foil for Stables’ vocal. Interlocked with Stables’ dry guitar and banjo, guitarist Neil Smith adds flourishes through subtle effects use, frequently barely touching the strings and respecting these restrained songs. More than anything else though, it’s Stables’ vocal command that holds this audience rapt, whether it’s a soaring virtuosic scale emerging from cymbal wash, or, at its most delicate, a pure, unwavering tone.
Stables’ words concern the breadth of human nature – ‘Stolen goods will get traced back to thee… People want blood and blood is what they’ve got’ on ‘Easy on the Thieves’. It is one of many lyrical threads of spirituality that run congruent to the physical – vomiting, blood and colourful figures make lucid these oneiric stories.
Later, rooted in the familiar tortoise versus hare paradigm, an African folk tale is reimagined in ‘By My Demon Eye’, a song drawing from disparate but interlinked corners of human mythology to explore the universal theme of truth: ‘Will you know it when you find it?… Which one of your gypsy wives am I?’ – I count at least three languages sung throughout.
It was in a moment during their ‘big pop tune’ – rare for her repertoire, the upbeat, hook-led single ‘Hotter Colder’ – where audience expectation was subverted. ‘It was your own shadow moving through the water’, Stables sings, nodding towards Smith, who measuredly wavers across tones, climbing and falling, delivering a Zappa-via-surf rock flurry until physically wielding a wall of feedback, gradually allowing the song to return to its default state.
With a tendency toward chiaroscuro, her two-song encore – the first note of which immediately silences a lengthy standing ovation – is a sparse pentatonic riff accompanied only by French vocal, followed by ‘Earthquake’, a blues-rooted negative of its predecessor, drawing an end to the night.
It’s evident that This Is The Kit’s time in the realm of folk-pop was a stop-gap on the way to being a sophisticated but intuitive artist capable of incorporating a world of musical styles while saying something that resonates deeply on a personal level.
I attended with a knowledge only of her recorded output, but I left understanding that her openness to chance and contrast allows these breathing, mutable pieces to move beyond their confines and leave a lasting imprint on those listening. Whether in the band’s room-absorbing swell on a song like ‘Hotter Colder’, or in the emotional purity of an unaccompanied voice singing words not understood.
This review is published as part of a new scheme for writers about music in Northern Ireland. The Journal of Music Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was launched in January 2018. Over the year, the editorial team of The Journal of Music will work with four new writers towards publication. The scheme participants are Laura Sheary, Marc Gregg, Stevie Lennox and Aine Cronin-McCartney. Find out more about them here.
This is the third mentoring scheme developed by The Journal of Music, following successful projects in Galway City and County Clare. For further details on the schemes, please visit https://goo.gl/QY83ga.
Published on 22 August 2018
Stevie Lennox began his work in music journalism with part-time student contributions to the Alternative Ulster magazine, going on to become its guide editor until its closure. Following this, he co-founded and took on editorial duties with The Thin Air. He’s also written for Drowned In Sound and Culture NI. Stevie writes, performs and tours with Junk Drawer, Sister Ghost and Unbelievable Lake. Having graduated in 2015 from Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre, he also works in an eclectic range of fields, including acoustic management, radio DJing, gig promotion, audio engineering, sound design, composition and recording for film.