Listening to the likeable quintet Ellen and the Escapades, who describe themselves as “alternative folk”, a familiar dilemma presents itself. The particular discomfort of the folk community when one of its own breaks into wider public consciousness is nothing new: the Folk Police are a much more established enforcement agency than the Funk Wardens, or the Custodians of Crossover Thrash. No aspect of leftist culture is without its self-destructive splits and the sniping, the sneers and slurs of “selling out” are as much a folk motif as any other casually-sketched stereotype of a music harder to classify than it is to parody cheaply. However, the rise of nu-folk as a chart force and its assimilation into mainstream culture has attracted much warranted scrutiny: when bands appropriate the aesthetics and commodify the sound (for what is now a massive mass-market export) it’s bound to leave a bad taste. Talented lead singer Ellen Smith and her group have already been alluded to as a female-fronted Mumford & Sons, and it’s an understandable tag.
Following the band’s win at the Glastonbury Emerging Talent contest in 2010, this debut album crashes the folk-pop party a little late, and perhaps after the sensible conversation has run dry. Two years on, there is a greater cynicism for the tear-jerking toe tapper but the band do a convincing “jaunty” – ‘Without You’ and ‘Preying on Your Mind’ being notable examples, the latter one of a quartet of tracks first released on the now-withdrawn EP, Of All the Times. Re-recorded here, the familiar four songs are among the more engaging on first play, though this is hard to separate from prior acquaintance, and the album as a whole is immensely well-constructed. All the Crooked Scenes is like nestling under a comfort blanket, snug and safe beneath Smith’s self-assured, soothing and resonant tones of condolence.
A tantalising trace of country-tinged Americana adds a welcome extra dimension to some tracks but, alas, is kept in check. The Leeds-based band offer a gentle, sweeping, agreeable collection of filmic swirls and genuine reproduction atmosphere. Setting a sedate, sympathetic pace for the most part, this is still a sleek creature with well-toned and honed contributions from the Escapades. The opening song, ‘Run’, encapsulates the ethos of wary, weary self-assurance and coaxed, cajoled entreaties to get up and go. Only slow ballad ‘Can’t Make It So’ starts to sag a little. Somewhere, we have lost sight of the reflexive power, the empathetic value in storytelling, the tales of others. It has to be all about us now. Smith has a nuanced and potent voice, somewhere between a coo and the softest caw – but at times the lyrics sound clumsily constructed.
At the subtler end of the spectrum, songs like ‘Stone Bird’ (“Rest your heavy wings/In my hands, I’ll help you sing”) are to be appreciated on the laziest of days; while the noodled opening of final track ‘Cast’ offers an attractive counterpoint to some of its precursors. There’s little excitement, though, and the coda on ‘Cast’ prolongs the contentment necessarily, because the pleasure derived is oddly ephemeral. This is a consistently pretty collection packed with pop strength, and deserves acclaim for this, especially if any personal connections the listener establishes with these songs (goodness knows there are enough hooks for the target market) can survive the playlisting and soundtracking and the predestined ubiquity. The effect is, however, a little less enduring than might be expected.
Britain is blessed with some enormously exciting contemporary folk musicians – the new records from Jim Moray and David Gibb & Elly Lucas alone serve as testimony to that – but I’m sure more people will hear, cherish and champion this album. Ultra-accessible, All the Crooked Scenes is a very tight set, a source of solace for some and cheer for others, comfort for the lovelorn and sentiment for the soppy. Ellen and the Escapades have cracked a hugely marketable formula and deliver a debut with warmth and charm. But it’s as “folk” as tax avoidance. As long as we’re clear.