Originally from Gothenburg but now based in London, Benjamin Folke Thomas has already made a name for himself on the folk scene; it is, after all, his actual middle name.
Copenhagen, his third album, benefits from being – as well as folk - a little bit pop and a little bit country too, which is no bad thing in my book. Surprisingly, the traditional (and much lauded) fingerpicking that drives Ben’s solo performances is set aside here as drums, bass and electric guitars dress the songs sensitively but pointedly for a wider commercial audience. The drums are thick-sounding and sit unapologetically on a blanket of warm bass guitar. The gentle jangle of electric guitars is redolent of early 90s indie pop in places and this makes Copenhagen very easy on the ear.
There's plenty of self-examination going on right from the off, as with the opening lines of the record Folke Thomas bemoans his own narcissism, foolishness and ‘obscene superior air’. Regret and self-loathing is standard territory for the confessional singer-songwriter and it’s a theme that’s threaded through Copenhagen. All this reflection, along with the singer’s gravelly baritone, conjures an image of someone who's chalked up far more than his twenty-seven years. The soul-searching fables of Springsteen, Cash and Dylan are clearly staples in Ben’s aural diet, but he is careful not to pretend to their thrones directly, preferring to keep his tale-telling small-scale and personal as opposed to epic and universal.
Despite the lyrical introspection, opener ‘Good Enough for Me’ is musically playful, with its spaghetti-western guitar motif and country swagger ultimately making it a bit of a toe-tapper. The straight country-rock of ‘Rhythm & Blues’ continues the bounciness and is surely a prime candidate for a hit single, with its instantly singalongable chorus. Two classic-sounding songs into the record, Folke Thomas already shows a rare musical confidence that few of his contemporaries can boast.
Things start to turn a little darker with ‘Good Friend Again’ which is equal parts Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III. The song adjusts the tone perfectly for ‘Finn’, a trio of portraits of people that have touched the songwriter’s life: an old Palestinian colleague; his deceased Grandpa and his big sister. It paints a beautifully understated picture of the power of human relationships, both fleeting and close. The yearning nature of the song is served well by the arrangement, draped in ethereal guitar and a hypnotic, pulsing snare. The brighter, watery electric guitar of the equally affecting ‘Safe and Secure’ that follows is more cynical, concerning the bitterness and jealousy of lost love. Its warm, lilting arrangement cleverly captures the feeling of being completely loved-up; literally safe and secure.
‘Bad News’ features a keyboard and drum loop last seen on David Gray’s White Ladder album and is lyrically much more opaque (which is a slightly stiff way of me saying I didn’t get it) so I was pleased when the easy-going ‘Copenhagen 30/6’ set things back on course with its light percussion and Henning Sernhede’s very tasteful clean country guitar parts. The song follows the familiar theme of love and insecurity - “You’re a rock, I’m a wreck… How can someone like you love somebody like me?” - but with a positive ending: “Dawn appears fresh and rosy fingered/I knew you’d be mine.”
‘Hold On’ is, musically speaking, pure Johnny Cash but lyrically almost as baffling as ‘Bad News’. I probably shouldn’t discuss it any further for legal reasons… but the organ of ‘Struck Gold’ - with its ambitions in the direction of Dire Straits at their melancholic best - recaptures the sublime moments of ‘Finn’ and ‘Safe and Secure’ from earlier in the record. The pared-down ‘Gimme a Smile’ closes the record and finally permits the expertly fingerpicked acoustic guitar to do all the work, skittering under Folke Thomas’s intimate, crumbly and humble voice. It’s a lovely way to finish a record that, despite the occasional side-step into the odd, displays Benjamin Folke Thomas as a real songwriting talent. His vocal style won’t be to everyone’s taste but this diverse and very thoughtfully arranged set of songs should, by rights, win him a wealth of new admirers.
Review by Rich Barnard