Johnny Flynn – Been Listening
(Lost Highway)
Words: Taylor Catalana

Ever since Noah the Whale declared that there would be sun, sun, suuuun all over our bodies, British indie folk rock, sometimes labeled nu-folk, has been burbling up to the mainstream music surface and finding a more universal audience.  In with the ranks of Emmy the Great, Slow Club, Mumford and Sons, and Laura Marling comes Johnny Flynn with his sophomore effort, Been Listening.

Flynn, a blue-eyed Brit every part the city/country mouse in his flannel and aged-to-indie-perfection Justin Beiber haircut, debuted with A Larum.  He was, in every sense of the word, on every track of that album, a troubadour.  Set to squeaking violins, plinking guitar, and sometimes the almost drunken crash of symbols, he poured his bluesy little soul into songs teetering somewhere between the present and past, the world at large and a deserted roadside in the English fog.  He sang of cold bread, brown trout, and the ten thousand graves in Hong Kong cemetery.  A Larum – the title taken from Shakespeare’s stage notes, naturally – was such a pristine piece of folk music root-contained a song called “Wayne Rooney” (thank you for clearing that up for me, World Cup).  Been Listening further explores the colloquial in localities beyond Flynn’s own.  Opening track, “Kentucky Pill,” proves this immediately with its mariachi band-horns and the lyrics, “Kentucky pill and a cow tipping expedition.”  It seems this troubadour has made his way through the American backwoods.  It is a bigger sound – more layered than the faster paced A Larum – a jaunty, homegrown party song.  It shows a different, more raucous side to Flynn, although it seems to fall short of his full potential.

“Lost and Found” comes in next, like a cold chaser, sounding like a scrapped track from A Larum, scrapped simply because it sounds just like every other slow paced warble from the debut.  The pace picks up again with “Churlish May”, a water-logged “Kentucky Pill”, folksy in the bard-like recitation of former loves, yet given a spine by the lazy squawk of Big Easy-style horns.  Following is another slow drawl, the underwhelming title track, which is then picked up by an ode to the confusion and yearning of youth, “Barnacled Warship,” a subtle kind of piratey pub song strung together with surprisingly resonating lyrics like “Think I’ll fight a war/I don’t know what for/but I’ll learn when I get my gun.”  Flynn then hops on a gypsy caravan to sing “Sweet William, part 2”, a satisfying dive into folksy mystery, finally really utilizing his team of backing vocalists, who are always able to bring depth, liveliness, and a sense of camaraderie to his songs (most perfectly on A Larum’s “The Box”).  Trailing lithely is the album’s easy commercial attention grabber (at least in indie circles and iTunes popularity), “The Water”, truly the simplest of folk songs yet made magic by the Lady, Laura Marling.  They sound like true Dickens-era orphans, a more authentic Colin Meloy and Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists.  It is disappointing because of the imagined potential from the collaboration of their respective talents as songwriters, but pleasing in its lullaby-like sweetness.  It provides a soft interlude into the darker, deeper tracks waiting.

Throughout the rest of the album, Flynn channels American rhythm and blues (“Howl”), Death Cab for Cutie-esque piano (“Amazon Love”), and spotlight-soaking, storytelling ballads (“The Prize- fighter and the Heiress”).  But the album’s best track, where Flynn really flourishes as a harbinger of folk into the modern age, is “Agnes.”  He is so very British in his delivery of lines like “St. Agnes, put your hair down/Tell your man to go to bed”, but the music recalls the jittery, pelvis-stimulating sounds of Elvis Presley.  You can almost hear Flynn’s excitement at broadening his musical horizons, even if it is slowly, experimentally.  It is a more electrified, modernized “Leftovers”, and the result, on this track, is invigorating.  Where and how can American rock traditions and British folk marry again in such a pleasing way?  Hopefully “Agnes” is a glimpse of the future not fully realized on Been Listening.

This album is a good departure for Flynn, but not enough of a break from his foundations and not enough of a tie to them.  He flirts with both directions but ends up committing to neither.  Not as captivating as A Larum, and a bit of a letdown following last winter’s Sweet William EP, Been Listening is indecisive but enjoyable – proper background music as opposed to meditative, soul-scouring magic.

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