November 2011

Rob St. John’s debut album Weald is unequivocally brilliant. Here’s why. Originally written for DIY.

“Singer-songwriter” might as well be a genre now. So much emphasis is placed on the fact that certain artists lack a band (even though the more egomaniacal of the species might routinely lug some nameless group of strumming homunculi around with them) that the actual nature of their music gets lost somewhere along the communication highway. It seems that with the singer-songwriter’s craft being based around singularity, we choose to focus intently on them and the stories they have to tell and, inevitably, new entrants to this particular pantheon now pride themselves on their individuality – lyrically, musically and literally. Rob St. John, however, seems to have missed this particular phenomenon. The Edinburgh-based songster’s debut album is a thing of uncommon equivocacy, a piece that eschews the trappings of the “one man and his guitar” mentality and instead draws its numerous influences and interpretations around it like a warm blanket, as comforting as it is inviting.

It’s tempting to class Weald as folk album – St. John himself admits to a fascination with rural British physical and cultural landscapes, the figurative realm of so much traditional music – but to do so would be to miss so much of what makes this such a captivating listen, not to mention affirming that singular nature we talked about earlier. ‘Sargasso Sea’ incorporates a guitar line that hums with bluesy energy, ‘Domino’ rumbles with an, albeit subdued, Waits-ian ragged stomp and atonality and the restless, tumbling fingerpicks of ‘Emma’s Dance’ waver between classical forms and the cloud-borne elegance of the late Bert Jansch. It’s a pastiche then, but a grounded one – every musical decision made has been rooted in St. John’s own interests, not left to wander. Weald, then, isn’t some postmodern sonic safari but a record marked by the homely ease of an artist feeling free to explore his musical loves in his own way – paradoxically individual and multiplicitous.

That paradox makes itself known in the vocals, the thick, Northern-inflected tones that could so easily dominate or fall flat alongside the candlelit instrumentation they accompany. Sounding constantly close to the speaker, the effect is one of allowing the rest of the arrangement to surround them. Singing saws, harmoniums and diegetic noise add colour to the sketch St. John creates, a rich set of tales reverberating with poetic turns of phrase alongside the vivid imagery of the oral tradition that underpins so much of folk music. Opener ‘Your Phantom Limb’ may be the closest thing to a pop song on the album, swaying with the energy of a chorus that would teeter on the edge of anthemic if it weren’t for how frail it sounds, but it’s the lyrics that become the most memorable thing about it. “With my sword hand singing / My hangnail grin” is the kind of lyric that at once puzzles and evokes a great deal, and represents one of many moments on the album where the wordplay stops the listener in their tracks, refuses the casual immediacy of simply being swept away by a tune. It’s not a jarring experience, rather one that rewards contemplation, both in deciphering the meanings and in considering the music itself a little more as you do.

It’s ridiculous to refer to music as an “experience”, a lazy way of saying that an album simply draws the listener’s ear more than an average example might, but there’s no doubt that much of Weald is concerned with experiences. There’s no confessional nature or well-drawn character to cling onto, but in their absence lie singular moments that place the listener into the panorama the music creates: ‘Stainforth Force’s slowly resolving field recording intro, the deliberately hollow echo of St. John’s vocals in ‘An Empty House’ or ‘Sargasso Sea’s interplay between the lonely guitar line and billowing backing vocals. These are all points to be remembered, absorbed and, yes, experienced too, and it’s this communicative feeling that makes Weald special, surprising and utterly magnificent.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This week saw my most inappropriate intro link yet. I’m pleased with it.

Does It Offend You, Yeah? – Battle Royale

Chris Anderson is a very elusive man. With only a sparsely decorated Myspace page dedicated to his one-man band, Songs for Dead Sailors, I really have no idea who he is, what he’s up to or where I can find more from him. Which is weird, these days. Only one mp3 of his has been released (though the For Folks’ Sake New Bands’ Panel) and, given its status as the currency of new music these days, I was completely unaware, and very happy to find out, that two new songs of his had been released in September. ‘She’ is very much a continuation of previous work, a crisp, lovelorn affair accumulating atmosphere around Anderson’s nucleic vocals – subdued, swooning and Wild Beasts-esque (well, if Wild Beasts’ vocals weren’t continuously grating). ‘Caspian’ is a rather more interesting affair, a track clearly built from the same space as each of the other songs, but towards a different goal. Comprising rise and fall backing guitar harmonics, a slight groove to Anderson’s intonations and what is officially the funkiest outro he’s yet produced, it’s a clue towards a wider scope than we might have expected.

It’s not massively surprising that, given Myspace is hardly the hip and happening, go-to streaming service it used to be, both tracks have failed to hit more than 20 plays between them. Let’s change that, because they’re brilliant. Below are a couple of slightly dodgy Myspace rips (that, if Mr. Anderson is reading, I am more than happy to take down at a moment’s notice) that I want you all to listen to. Let’s make sure we get more of this, and that we know about it when it next happens.

Songs for Dead Sailors – She

Songs for Dead Sailors – Caspian

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This might be my favourite episode of The Folk Bloke yet – not for any actually professional reasons, just because I managed to get songs from Skyrim and Future of the Left into it.

Sven – Ragnar the Red (YSI)
Sven – The Age of Aggression (YSI)

There’s little doubt that there’s something annoying about music writers consistently utilising the trusty band comparison in their work; not least, I imagine, for the bands themselves. If you’re a new band*, just starting to fill gigs through your own hard work, there’s probably little worse than some journalist or, dare I say it, blogger drawing a hasty line between your music and that of another, most probably more established, artist. It could influence potential listeners, leading them to expect something that isn’t delivered on or, worse still, make them simply not want to listen at all. At the very least, it will most probably rankle having your own writing, musical or lyrical, made to seem simply derivative. I imagine you can see where this is going by now.

The Quiet Americans, a new band, remind me of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, an established band.

Honestly though, I’ll explain myself. You see, I have no interest in a straight comparison unless I’m actually reading about a tribute band. What I look for in this kind of device is how it sets up an idea and then modifies it – thinking of other music as a base for a new band rather than a guide is not only more flattering to both parties, but actually representative of most music nowadays. Given that the vast majority of music I would consider good is capable of being defined by genre, the fact that I think it’s good means that, generally, it’s doing something different on top of its base to make itself stand out.

So step up The Quiet Americans, who have taken what I loved about PoBPaH’s first album – a knack for an effervescent melody, trendy fuzz and winsome attitude – and went in quite the opposite direction from their second, which I disliked rather a lot. The fuzz is thicker, the feel more intimate – these are songs that manage to sound contemporary without seeming constructed or disaffected. Of course, a comparison is never a complete review, and this certainly isn’t the complete of catgut to The Quiet Americans’ bow.  With some mighty-sounding blues dropping in and out, songs like ‘Be Alone’ and ‘Weird Mountain’ add some heft to the expected meekness of C86 sonics whilst ‘Falling’s steely stomp continues the trend.

Of course, a writer is rarely trying to simply discredit, belittle or permanently sum up a band with a comparison, even if it is an essentially useless, basic one. It’s a useful tool for making the nebulous world of music writing a little more tangible (or at least psychically audible). With that in mind, if you like what you reckon you can hear, then I would highly recommend downloading (or, heaven forbid, buy) the band’s debut EP, Medicine from their Bandcamp or if you want one more hurdle for the band to jump, grab the download below and see what you think.

The Quiet Americans – Be Alone (YSI)

*And frankly I imagine it pisses off big bands** almost as much.
**Not big bands like Harry Connick Jr. by the way. Well, not necessarily.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This week’s show had an abundance (two) of double bills, apologies (two) and songs from films (one?).

The Roots – Double Trouble (YSI)

I’ve said a lot about Future of the Left in the past, so I won’t say much beyond the fact that their new EP is streaming now, I’m severely excited to hear more material from this new line-up and that the sample cut below sounds like evil Muppets.

Future of the Left – New Adventures

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