Deep in Betjeman’s Metro-land lies the village of Chorleywood, a well-heeled Chiltern retreat on the edge of the Orbital interzone. It’s where James Elkington spent his younger years; the guitarist even pays tribute to one of its streets, Rendlesham Way, in the name of the lone instrumental, as rolling as those chalk ridges, on his second solo album, Ever-Roving Eye.
“Chorleywood is a small town surrounded by woods,” Elkington tells Uncut, “with a high density of pubs. Rendlesham Way’s a steep, treacherous hill that we had to climb as teenagers to get to our favourite of those…”
It’s common for musicians to look back to their adolescence for inspiration, but Elkington is gazing back from further away than most: for the past 20 years this Home Counties boy has lived in Chicago, Illinois. He didn’t move to the US in order to ‘make it’, but rather to become part of the post-rock musical community that he admired throughout the ’90s. Once he arrived in the early 2000s, he led an indie-rock band, The Zincs, before putting his own musical ambitions on hold to collaborate with friends such as Joan Shelley, Nathan Salsburg, Steve Gunn and Jeff Tweedy, and heroes like Richard Thompson and Michael Chapman.
His resulting solo career has happened somewhat by accident. While acting as a hired gun (as well as utilising his guitar and multi-instrumental chops, he even co-produced Joan Shelley’s Like The River Loves The Sea last year), he found himself working on some “doodles” that became songs and finally 2017’s Wintres Woma, his first record under his own name. It introduced a new acoustic, folky mode, recalling Nick Drake on the tumbling opener, “Make It Up”, Michael Chapman on the sparky country-blues of “Grief Is Not Coming For You” and Greenwich Village folk on the strummed “Sister Of Mine”. It was a fine introduction, but the closing, Roy Harper-esque “Any Afternoon”, its picked acoustics drifting across a bed of Ebow drone and Mellotron, suggested that Elkington was capable of more.
Ever-Roving Eye, then, is the triumph that Wintres Woma hinted at. It finds Elkington shedding most of his American influences for an increasingly British sound: perhaps being away from one’s country of birth for so long allows a songwriter to better distil its essence, à la other perennial ex-pats Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock; or perhaps it’s just a result of Elkington’s time spent with Shelley and Salsburg, themselves no strangers to Celtic styles.
What immediately sets the record apart from many of its counterparts, even from Elkington’s debut, is its swing. Ever since American Primitive emerged from the shadows in the 1990s to heavily influence 21st-century acoustic guitar, there’s been a gradual stiffening, a straightening, of playing; Elkington, a dedicated jazz fan, reverses this, loosening his fingerpicking to a rolling canter on “Rendlesham Way” and to a jazzy sashay on “Late Jim’s Lament”. With its busy double-bass from Nick Macri and light-fingered drums from Spencer Tweedy – MVPs throughout the LP – “…Lament” strongly resembles Pentangle, and boasts a stunning modal guitar solo that perhaps only Davy Graham would have been brave enough to attempt. “Moon Tempering”, meanwhile, is full of courtly twists and turns, recalling John Renbourn’s solo work and Bert Jansch’s eerie “I Have No Time”. The spangled, restless electric solo on the opening “Nowhere Time” betrays Elkington’s early years attempting to master bluegrass banjo, as well as the influence of Richard Thompson’s quicksilver lead work.
As on the propulsive “Carousel”, the music can be as austere as its gloomy cover – modelled on The Watersons’ 1965 LP, Frost And Fire: A Calendar Of Ceremonial Folk Songs – yet the more one listens to Ever-Roving Eye, the more details emerge to elevate it from a mid-’60s tribute to something wholly rooted in the present, and far stranger. The tender “Leopards Lay Down”, for instance, dissolves into an ambient haze of woodwind and strings that suggests Penguin Café Orchestra, while the title track is driven by sleigh bells like a spiritual jazz epic, before it collapses into a thicket of electric guitar drones. The closing “Much Master” unfolds with clarinet and pedal steel that nod to Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing (a favourite album of Jeff Tweedy’s, of course), and even the retro “Late Jim’s Lament” is peppered with subtle aurorae of feedback. Here and there, too, are blankets of backing vocals from The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, a fellow Paradise Of Bachelors artist, sounding especially spectral.
If Elkington’s guitar playing is indebted to his ’60s heroes, his husky, hushed baritone instead recalls his indie favourites of the ’80s, from the droll delivery of Lloyd Cole to the half-smirking cool of Robert Forster. Lyrically too, he consistently delivers arresting imagery far from folk or singer-songwriter cliché: “…that pen-poisoned child/So bracken-haired and wild,” he muses on “Nowhere Time”. “No gilded pigeon wings are gonna fly.” There’s a surreal edge at play as well: Cologne is “the cathouse of kings”, according to “Much Master”, while “Sleeping Me Awake” finds Elkington conjuring lines that would suit Cate Le Bon: “I’m a seaside of legs/I’m a malamute and a dinner plate of dregs…”
If “everyone’s archive weighs them down”, as he laments on “Moon Tempering”, then Elkington, closing in on 50, has managed to channel the weight of his own messy history into his richest, most complete effort yet. Ever-Roving Eye has, in many ways, been decades in the making: there are threads here that can be traced to all of Elkington’s endeavours, from his early banjo playing and his noisier work with The Zincs, to his time as right-hand man for Tweedy, Thompson, Shelley and others; and songs that are rooted in both America and England. One might reasonably conclude that the sound of Ever-Roving Eye has been brewing organically beneath the surface of Elkington’s everyday for years, and that this unforced, natural feel is what gives the record its power.
Due to his responsibilities as a father of two young children, Elkington isn’t going to be touring intensely this year, and he tells Uncut that he’s resisting the temptation immediately to begin work on another record. “I guess the title of this album is partly a reminder to myself to enjoy what I’m doing,” he says, “and not be constantly looking towards the next thing. You don’t have to be pursuing a career.”
For now, then, Ever-Roving Eye – an outstanding record from a humble collaborator, a leisurely developer, a man forever caught somewhere between Chorleywood and Chicago – is more than enough.