Folk music: let’s riff a little on its definition. Sorry Tigercats, just hang in there. At folk’s core, let’s assume, must be storytelling. Scholars – yes, certain scholars have little better to do than consider your listening predilections – have argued folk revolves around the strength of the sung word and if skilled musicianship is not quite an afterthought then consider it forever secondary on a list of two priorities. In fact, never mind scholars, walk into any folk club or pub gathering and it’s often glaringly obvious the force of the narrative comes before any mastery of chord progression. Here’s three chords, now form a folk band.
Anyone can perform folk by that estimation. It’s the anti-Garageband genre. One dictionary definition posits folk as “the traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of people in a community”, which is a little unwieldy and creaky, hinting at a genre with the allure of double history, not to mention a staid present.
But setting aside the anonymity factor, the phrasing holds up. ‘Found music’ certainly has its place, whether anonymous or neglected; Harry Smith’s Smithsonian Anthology being an obvious example of buried treasure dug up and carefully nurtured, a salvaged source of inspiration.
But the indigeneity factor surely trumps all, and allows the square peg of Tigercats’ debut album to slide into folk’s round hole. See, Tigercats have fed well off London lore, gorging apparently on a diet of Spearmint and Television Personalities, the anti-societal punk poetry of Shirley Lee and Dan Treacy. Hefner too, yes definitely Hefner. They’ve been lauded by Darren Hayman? Blow me down.
Housed in east London, Tigercats are a five-piece band fronted by former Esiotrot singer Duncan Barrett, recent touring mates of Allo Darlin’ and a heap of fun, especially as a live act. Barrett yaks and yelps his way through a rattling run of floorshakers, among which the opener, the deeply cynical, highly topical ‘Coffin For The Isle Of Dogs’, takes its half-spoken, half-sung, passionate sloganeering lead from Spearmint’s epic Sweeping The Nation.
It’s ‘found music’ again: recovered flotsam from a Thames floor littered with indiepop shipwrecks. On ‘Coffin…’, Barrett sticks two fingers up – V for vendetta – to the septic Isle’s legion of bankers, its skyscraping landscape, and lurches forth with: “This is a declaration of independence/Pull up the bridges, don’t let anybody in… This island has gone to the dogs.” It’s a political, smarting voice, rising to the chant: “You call it fall-out/We call it payback/We’re going to make you wish you didn’t say that.”
So far, so righteous, even if the menace is a touch playground. Like the TVPs, Tigercats have a penchant for name-checking, so there’s tracks here titled Konny Huck, The Vapours, Stevie Nicks, Harper Lee, and Kim & Thurston, each with varying degrees of reference to their title. It’s a gimmick and you’d rather they didn’t need that.
Tigercats rise above the gimmicks and the humdrum when Barrett’s Estuary-accented voice is given licence to soar, to be the lead instrument, to dictate – to position the vocals, the words, front and centre. It’s that very tenet of folk music again, even if the band’s sound is only loosely rooted in the pastoral. This is indiepop with a passing fancy for folk. My difficulty with Isle Of Dogs is that Barrett and his band can sound utterly thrilling, infectious and gutsy, far exceeding the sum of their collective inspirations, but more than once they regress to Britpop-by-numbers, rendering them too ordinary to be interesting. And that’s a tradition that needs stamping out for the sake of future generations. Have no doubt, history tells us they’re listening.
Words: John Skilbeck