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Richard Youngs - Airs of the Ear

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Artist: Richard Youngs

Album: Airs of the Ear

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: May. 27, 2003

Folk Only In Name

Just as rock is supposed to “rock” and dance music should compel you to dance, folk music is generally intended to do one of two things: be either very beautiful or very political, sometimes in combination. We all know that genres cannot be as rigidly defined as this, but it’s perhaps more difficult for pioneering folk-based musicians to break out of defining stereotypes than practitioners of other types of music. This might be due to folk’s relative simplicity, or to its perceived status as a style of music that has become outdated. Whatever the reason, folk has become something of a dirty word, and Richard Youngs’ music suggests that it doesn’t have to be, and that many of its possibilities have yet to be explored.

Youngs is an Englishman who relocated to Scotland some time ago, and he has spent the last fifteen years exploring various types of music, more or less related to folk. On past offerings, such as 2001’s Making Paper, Youngs explored the boundaries of piano-accompanied singing, with three songs that all pushed past the fifteen minute mark. They’re leagues away from “singer-songwriter” fare, but they share its basic sound and instrumentation, using them as springboards for experimentation rather than tools to tell a story or make a simple, beautiful song. Indeed, while much of Youngs’ music is surely “beautiful” in some way, it is also often disorienting, frequently diverging from expectation. For every release of Youngs’ that is somewhat more traditional, he has also made albums, often in collaboration, which are drastically experimental, sifting through drone, electronic noise, and elaborately bizarre tunings.

Airs of the Ear serves as a good introduction to the totality of Youngs’ impulses, as it showcases both his ear for melody and his penchant for wildly abstract electronics. At the core of every song is Young’s singing and a gently plucked twelve-string guitar. The effect is part fairytale England, with his multi-tracked harmonies, and part American roots music, as Youngs imports liberal amounts of Southern blues and country. Fluttering around the periphery of the songs, however, is a strange, ephemeral buzz, part feedback, part synth bleep. These sounds and textures sound utterly alien to the basic elements of the songs, but that seems to be the point. Youngs is fascinated by repetition, and most of his songs feature a short lyric that is recycled continuously, as the strange sonics pulse and swirl around his oddly Middle Ages-sounding voice. It’s definitely a unique sound, one that isn’t necessarily immediately appealing.

But even on a first listen, it begins to make sense, as the last half of “Fire Horse Rising” descends into layer upon layer of processed noise, the once-gentle folk song becomes a deconstructed mess, with two disjointed halves that couldn’t exist without the other. It takes balls to push elements like these together, since they don’t initially make sense. Except that they do. Youngs simply hears songs differently, and is obviously far from satisfied with genre conventions. He’s also not afraid to construct something simple, as evidenced by the closer “Machaut’s Dream”. It’s a spare, lovely song, built around a basic chord structure, Youngs’ voice, and a gently weeping theremin. For all its simplicity, it doesn’t sound remotely like anyone else, a description Youngs must consider a great compliment.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Richard Youngs


Autumn Response

Like a Neuron

Under Stellar Stream

Amplifying Host

Regions of the Old School

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