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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Jim Causley: more Devon than devil

Jim Causley has a new album out called Dumnonia, which is a reference to a pre-Roman tribe based in the westcountry, and it's got a whopping 18 songs on it. The unifying force of this avalanche of riches, according to the sleeve notes, is that he set out to make a kind of Devon specific CD, although with the proviso that it's Devon as he sees it. This is a useful get-out clause, since there's a version of She Moves Through the Fair on there, which I think of as Irish, probably because the two versions I know best are by Cara Dillon and Sinead O'Connor.

Causley is an interesting character. Best known for his deep, honeyed tones, youth and time spent singing with Mawkin:Causley, he's a graduate of the Newcastle folk course. Both times I saw him with Mawkin:Causley (note the interesting punctuation) I got the impression that he was somehow on his best behaviour and wished that he'd let the rest of the band do the history bits in the intros because they weren't his strong point (the singing was). Having said that, he was clearly enjoyed by the audience, which is a great deal more than half the battle. 

It's obvious from the sleeve notes that he's got an interest in the collecting side of the music, although in a way that makes one suspect that he's slightly anxious to show that he's applied himself. He says that he's avoided a lot of the obvious stuff and then names a handful of songs - including Childe the Hunter and Widecombe Fair - which is interesting because I wouldn't necessarily have known what the obvious Devonian stuff was. I guess there's no point having a degree unless you can use it, right?

My favourite track on the album is Exeter Town, which is the story of a "wild and wicked youth" who robs and shags his way through life and ends up getting hanged for his transgressions. The song suits Causley because you believe him when he's singing it. Elsewhere there is sometimes a kind of codgerish-ness to the material (and I include in this Honiton Lace, a first-person story about a lace-making spinster) that makes him seem like a young man in the service of a tradition rather than a musician making the tradition his own. Also, I was thrown by the upbeat nature of his version of She Moves Through the Fair and its teaming with a lewd story about an adulterous German horologist. Having thought about it for quite a long time, I can't see an upside to the suicide of one's fiancee, who then returns to haunt you. You'd have to miss them a very great deal for that to be a good thing and the thumbnail sketch of the situation contained within the brief, brilliant lyric suggests that the singer doesn't really know the object of his/her affections very well. We've all been there, right? That's why it's a classic.

It would be great to see Causley embrace his raffish, dark side and choose material that plays to his strengths, which are his youth and the twinkle in his eye. And what's not to like about that?

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