Graded on a Curve: Gwenifer Raymond,
You Never Were Much
of a Dancer

Gwenifer Raymond plays guitar, banjo, and even a little fiddle on her full-length debut, the assured and at times enthralling You Never Were Much of a Dancer. Although the Cardiff, Wales native and current Brighton, England resident has considerable formative experience in punk bands, the album is a solo instrumental showcase that highlights her interest in acoustic blues, Appalachian folk, and the eternal allure of the American Primitive guitar. It’s a well-established framework, but Raymond enlivens it with faultless playing and more importantly, elements of personal style. As refreshing as it is fully formed, it’s out now through Tompkins Square.

The story is that when Gwenifer Raymond was eight years old, her mother gave her a cassette of Nirvana’s Nevermind; as one might imagine, the gesture had a pronounced effect, and it wasn’t long before that My First Sony tape deck and headphones were augmented with a guitar. Jump forward a bit, and Raymond’s teenaged years found her in the role of guitarist or drummer in punk outfits.

Having a galvanizing musical experience and then diving into adolescent band activity is common enough. Raymond’s subsequent branching-out isn’t unusual either, as across the decades countless folks have expanded their musical diets beyond the realms of rock. Furthermore, that she wholeheartedly dove into expressing herself through a blues-folk-American Primitive template isn’t especially rare; what is striking is her assurance of technique and the range of mood on what’s essentially her debut release.

There was a Record Store Day 7-inch earlier this year and a digital EP in 2015; one song from the vinyl and the entirety of the EP (these in different versions, some with adjusted titles) recur here. Of course, playing guitar from age eight can’t but help in the strengthening of ability, but young players often strain against the limits of their talent, in large part because they have something to prove. There’s none of that here. I’ve no idea when she took up the banjo in earnest, but Raymond’s expressiveness on that instrument is no less impressive.

Claiming Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Roscoe Holcomb as inspirations, she doesn’t connect as heavily indebted to any of them. One will assuredly hear them filtered through the more pervasive influence of John Fahey, with the impact undisguised, as the selections include “Requiem for John Fahey” (fans of the American Primitive icon will pick up on the deeper significance of the gesture).

The Middle Eastern-infused Appalachian fiddle of “Off to See the Hangman, Part I” serves as a brief and wholly effective prelude to the immediately gripping fingerpicking tour de force “Sometimes There’s Blood.” Those familiar with the American Primitive will recognize the roots, but what sticks out is the intensity of the playing, recalling Fahey yes, but the young Fahey (think of the Vanguard material collected on The Essential).

However, Raymond’s energy illuminates the biographical circumstances that shaped this recording (and sweetly, back again), and I appreciate the quick (yet not abrupt) finale and how it leads into the introductory banjo selection “Idumea.” While succinct at under three minutes (many of the record’s pieces are notably shorter, while others spread out), the High Lonesome Sound gets successfully conjured.

Holcomb yes, but also Dock Boggs and Bascom Lamar Lunsford; it becomes apparent that Raymond has soaked up more than just a handful of key players. Jumping forward, the LP’s next track for banjo “Oh, Command Me Lord!” reminds me not of a player of that axe but of the old-time fiddle mainstay “Sail Away Lady.” Cool.

Likewise, as evinced by “Off to See the Hangman, Part II,” she’s able to formulate extended landscapes for guitar that reside substantially apart from the direct precedent of the American Primitive, while still being connected to it in spirit. But moving ahead again, “Sweep It Up” underscores her deftness at molding classic elements to her needs, in this case the playing of Sylvester Weaver, to get in the neighborhood of Glenn Jones’ recent stuff, and she does it in just two minutes.

“Face Down Strut” is sort of a coffeehouse thing, appropriately caffeinated in delivery, but then “Laika’s Song” shifts into territory that’s pretty yet sturdy. “Requiem for John Fahey” is a nifty slice of fingerpicking, while “Dance of the Everlasting Faint” returns to the atmosphere of “Off to See the Hangman, Part II”; along with the examples of brevity, these longer tracks reinforce the spirit (if not the sound) of punk, a facet also tangible in the banjo smoker “Bleeding Finger Blues.”

The two parts of “Sack ‘em Up” (sequenced as one cut) display the capacity to shift from a peaceful (but not sedate) beauty move into a crisper zone (accented with a little hollow body knocking), and with nary a hitch; closer “It Was All Sackcloth and Ashes” cozies up to the essence of prime Ry Cooder. That it’s not an attempt to end the album with a bang, instead wrapping things up with a contemplative coda, really adds to the appeal.

Like much of the best post-American Primitive stuff, there’s a lack of strained-for distinctiveness across You Never Were Much of a Dancer. Instead, it’s concerned with enlivening the rudiments of the style, against the odds, one more time. And yet, through commitment and passion Gwenifer Raymond communicates much of her own self anyway. It’s a major achievement.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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