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Title: England Keep My Bones
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)When the punk rock revolution sent shock waves through the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many roots rockers and folk-rockers were taken aback by punk’s rawness, snarling anger and in-your-face attitude. Punk’s message was one of liberation, which was also the message of Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Joan Baez. But punk’s critics on the folk/roots circuit were more focused on the way punks were saying things rather than what they were saying. Times have changed, however. And these days, it isn’t hard to find folk-rock/roots rock artists with a strong punk influence; Frank Turner (formerly of the London-based band Million Dead) is a perfect example.
The British singer/songwriter’s fourth album, England Keep My Bones, sounds like the work of someone who was raised on folk-rock and roots rock but was also raised on punk. Turner, now 30, was born in 1981, which means that he isn’t old enough to remember a time in which punk was the controversial new kid on the block. By the time Turner reached adolescence in the 1990s, punk had long since become mainstream and was making its presence felt in coffee houses and at folk festivals. So when Turner sounds rootsy and punky at the same time on inspired tracks like “I Am Disappeared,” “Peggy Sang the Blues” and “Nights Become Days,” he makes folk-rock, roots rock and punk sound like a perfectly logical combination. “Glory Hallelujah” is rootsy, yet it has the “question, don’t accept” message and the biting edge that have been a big part of punk (both British and American) for over 35 years.
There are parallels between what Turner does and what New York City-based singer/songwriter Lach and other members of the antifolk movement have been doing in Manhattan’s East Village, but Turner’s work has a decidedly British appeal. Turner’s connection to the UK is evident on “Wessex Boy,” “If I Ever Stray,” “English Curse” (which is performed a cappella), “Nights Become Days,” and other unmistakably British-sounding tracks. Turner often sings about life in the UK, and he does so convincingly. But that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have American influences or fails to acknowledge the contributions of American rockers.
On the infectious “I Still Believe,” for example, he passionately sings about the history of rock & roll and gives a shout out to early pre-Beatles rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley (Turner also mentions “Johnny,” who presumably, is Johnny Cash, another American great who was making his mark before the rise of the Fab Four). And when Turner is singing about those American icons, he doesn’t sound any less British.
But he is reminding us that his roots run deep and that artists from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have helped to shape his creative identity. Indeed, Turner’s roots are Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, and his roots are also the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols. Those British punks of the late 1970s and/or early 1980s were controversial in their day, but now, most musical historians realize that what they were doing was simply rock & roll stripped down to the gutsy basics. And when Turner is simultaneously affected by punk, roots rock and folk-rock on this memorable CD, he makes it sound like a perfectly natural combination.
“Redemption” is full of Springsteen-ish imagery, but again, Turner knows how to acknowledge artists he admires without actually trying to emulate them or allowing his own identity to become obscured. Turner’s introspection on “Redemption” brings to mind The Boss’ introspection, but he isn’t pretending to be a New Jersey boy or singing about summer weekends in Asbury Park, Atlantic City or Cape May. England is still his point of reference even when he is mentioning New Jersey’s favorite son.
“One Foot Before the Other” is perhaps the album’s most aggressive and hard-rocking track, especially during the burning chorus. Turner doesn’t hesitate to turn up the decibels on that tune. But even at his loudest and most amplified, he maintains a certain amount of rootsiness and folk appeal.
England Keep My Bones is a fine album from this expressive singer/songwriter.