The latest buzz star out of England isn't a sassy teen girl with a hit MySpace page or a neo-R&B singer who pines to be the next Amy Winehouse. It's a ye-olde-British-style folkie who uses a middle English term for his album title, writes of knaves and ladies, and happens to be 24.
It's hard to tell exactly what century Johnny Flynn is singing in when you spin his arresting U.S. debut, "A Larum." (He took the CD's title from a 16th-century term for a great ruckus). Flynn's voice has the dark and lilting cadences of a classic Celtic troubadour, and his lyrics flow with the alliterative ease of a romantic poet.
It's a well-traveled voice you'll hear in the first track, "The Box," a wise ode about letting go of everything unessential in life, inspired by Thoreau's nature poems. "Sweep my mess away/leave my body/leave my bones/leave my soul/leave me nothing I don't need at all," Flynn hums.
He's just as humble and fleet in "Leftovers," where he's content to dine on scraps and crumbs, making the most of the least. It's a perfect stance for a troubadour, but the character Flynn has adopted never seems dated or contrived.
The latter point is a concern, considering Flynn has as strong a background in acting as music.
Born in Johannesburg, Flynn comes from a family of thespians. His dad appeared regularly on "Dr. Who," and Flynn spent much of his teen life in Shakespearean plays in the U.K. Last year, he acted in two here at BAM. At the same time, he drew inspiration from "The Freewheel in' Bob Dylan" and from the N.Y. anti-folk movement of stars like Adam Green and Jeffrey Lewis.
Flynn's brand of neo-folk sounds nothing like those cracked American stars. The only U.S. references arrive in the strains of Appalachian music you'll hear in a cut like "Brown Trout Blues." You're more likely to hear hints of '60s British folk stars, like Bert Jansch (of Pentangle, for his fine guitar fingerings) and Richard Thompson (for his mordant wit).
That last element has much to do with the album's contemporary feel. Flynn's tone has a modern jauntiness, elaborated in off-kilter arrangements - like the cello that keeps scratching off key. Aiding him is an animated four-piece backup band, the Sussex Wit. Together, they make historic references sound as down to earth as they did in their day.