The journey from sideman to the center of the stage is longer and harder than it looks, and it’s not for everyone. An amalgam of skill, swagger and certainty helps to straighten the path along the way.
Who knows how long James Elkington has longed to make his debut solo LP, but one thing is for sure: the sideman role has been very kind to the Chicago-based guitarist in recent years. Elkington—an native of England—is one of the go-to players working in the ambitious corners of Americana music, having put his six-stringed stamp on records by Freakwater, Wooden Wand, Steve Gunn, Richard Thompson and Daughn Gibson. He plays in the touring version of Jeff Tweedy’s current non-Wilco band, Tweedy, and also has released two albums of guitar duets with Joan Shelley’s right-hand man, the acoustic ace Nathan Salsburg.
Wintres Woma, however, is the first full-length LP credited only to Elkington, and it’s a lovely document of not only his top-shelf guitar abilities, but also his sharp songwriting skills and sturdy singing voice. These qualities come together right off the bat in opening track “Make It Up,” a tightly wound ball of fingerpicking, bongo beats, wanderer’s words and Elkington’s cozy baritone. In both tone and technique, the song recalls Nick Drake at his least hazy.
From there, Wintres Woma is a leisurely tour through the intersections of British folk, solo acoustic guitar, country-rock and new classical music. “Hollow in Your House” benefits from a distant glimmer of pedal steel guitar. An elegant cello line courses through the airy “Wading the Vapors,” adding a dose dissonance at one point. It’s a much-needed moment of messiness in what’s otherwise a remarkably (perhaps dangerously) consistent album.
Elsewhere, a traditional song, “The Parting Glass,” showcases Elkington’s dexterity as a player. “The Hermit Census” and “Greatness Yet to Come” provide light touches of twang and blues, respectively. “Sister of Mine” finds Elkington playing with melody; its chorus zigs ever so slightly when you expect it to zag. And the breezy buzz of the guitars in “Grief is Not Coming” brighten things up a bit. Again, just when Wintres Woma begins to feel a little too even-keeled and overcast, Elkington introduces something new to the mix.
And through it all, he acts as the anchor through his incredible skill and feel as a guitarist, yes, but also his pleasantly imperfect voice. Elkington is a primitive singer, but boasts a timbre that fits snugly within its surroundings. Moving from the shadows into the spotlight is not easy. That’s true. But on Wintres Woma, James Elkington makes it look easier than most.