British expatriate James Elkington doesn’t pinpoint when he moved to Chicago, but he says it’s “getting on toward 20 years” ago. Shortly thereafter, he was drumming for Skin Graft Records band Mount Shasta, and en route to helming some of Chicago’s best independent music. His guitar-based quartet the Zincs were influenced by post-punk and Afropop. The Horse’s Ha featured collaboration with Janet Beveridge Bean of Eleventh Dream Day, creating avant-garde roots music with a jazz-savvy rhythm section that morphed into improvisational trio Stirrup.
A funny thing happened as more people noticed Elkington’s acumen as vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – he receded from center stage. For several years, Elkington has played important supporting roles for other Chicago-based acts, including Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Jon Langford’s band Skull Orchard, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s eponymous side project Tweedy. Elkington also recorded nimble acoustic guitar duets with friend Nathan Salsburg, and served as sideman for Richard Thompson’s 2015 album “Still.”
“The Zincs ended around 2008, mostly to concentrate on The Horse’s Ha,” says Elkington. “I wasn’t doing a very good job of doing both. Around 2010, I started playing with Jon Langford. Soon afterward, we recorded an album called ‘Old Devils.’ From that point, it snowballed to where all I was doing was playing in my friends’ bands. To be honest, I was ready for a break from being bandleader.”
Now, however, Elkington returns to the forefront with a compelling album called “Wintres Woma.” The title is an old English term describing the sound of winter. The album emphasizes Elkington’s sleepy baritone voice and lyrical, fingerstyle guitar playing. Curlicue figures on songs like “Make it Up” will send aspiring guitarists to the woodshed. Although working with folk-based accoutrements, Elkington’s instincts are shaped as much by Television and the Smiths as they are by Nick Drake and Davey Graham.
“I don’t consider what I do to be folk,” says Elkington. “It’s acoustic music. I’m using some techniques and ideas used in the folk revival, but the songs and lyrics don’t follow any tradition. They’re very me.”
Still, Elkington describes Graham’s special presence. “He saw the entire world of music as just one world,” he says. “A Davey Graham album would have something from Tangiers, a show tune, a jazz standard, and a couple of reels, yet it would hang together. His approach, and the fact that he’s credited with developing the guitar tuning I’m using on my album, makes him a huge influence.”
Elkington’s wordplay remains unconventional and evocative. “The Hermit Census” chastises a friend to “stop crying fat wedding-band tears.” It’s a snarky way to cheer someone, but the fundamental wish is to see that person “light up like a chandelier.” On “Grief is Not Coming,” Elkington addresses himself. “I have a sort of genetic disposition to see the dark side of things,” he says. “That’s an anti-dark song. It’s optimistic. With the amount of times I say the word ‘grief’ in it, you’d think it wasn’t, but that’s the best I can do.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.