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.

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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

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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.

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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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Last week’s Folk Bloke featured me making up a stupid story about the Australian bush before introducing a song. I’ve still not figured out, given that the show is pre-recorded, why I didn’t cut it out of the final show. It is silly.

The Shins – Australia (YSI)

Cloud Nothings used to seem relatively well-defined by their band name. ‘Hey Cool Kid’ was an engaging bit of breezy, 3 minute indie pop. There wasn’t much to it, but that was part of its charm – I listened to it a bit, but never felt the compulsion to hear more from the band. After the release of new single ‘No Future/No Past’, I can’t be so certain that it’s the right choice of moniker anymore, and, consequently, I’m positive that I’d like to hear more.

Reinvention has become something of a stolid term in recent years, usually reserved for band-shaped behemoths who have outstayed their welcome and simply want to shift a few records outside of the core fanbase. After today, I vote we become a bit more picky about our usage, because this seems just about the most essentially truthful use of the word possible. ‘No Future/No Past’ is a horror movie of a track, working its way from creeping unease through to bloodcurdling climax, complete with incoherent screams and a cliffhanger of an outro. This is deep, emotive work, replete with brilliant touches in Dylan Baldi’s gradually cracking delivery and diving background guitars. This is as rich in production (no doubt helped that the redoubtable steve Albini was in charge of that side of things) as Baldi’s previous work was definitively, and purposefully, surface-level.

Cloud Nothings are either a lot shallower or a lot deeper than we knew, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve been more interested to find that out about a band.

Cloud Nothings – Hey Cool Kid (YSI)
Cloud Nothings – No Future/No Past (YSI)

As you may have been able to tell, I’m a fan of The Skeleton Dead. Their melacholic balladry has charmed me with its inspired mix of intimate folk in the Smog vein with evocative imagery and intelligent production. It’s consistently intriguing and engaging, and I wanted to know more. So what did I do? I bloody talked to them, didn’t I? This was originally written for DIY.

You’ve released your debut album for free, was that a tough decision or one of necessity?

Tom: It wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. We’d already recorded the album and had it mixed before we decided what to do with it. I think Bandcamp’s great, it’s amazing that you can now make a record and have it available straight away to anyone in the world with an internet connection.
Claire: We haven’t recorded this to make money, it was purely to get our music out there. I don’t think we actually intended to make and release an album when we started working together, it was more a case of just recording stuff to see what we sounded like and before we knew it we had an album’s worth of material. Our friends were constantly nagging us for CDs so it was a way to keep them happy too. We did all the recording ourselves for next to nothing so there wasn’t an issue of recouping expenses. We want to share this album with as wide an audience as possible so a free download seemed the best way to do it, particularly being a new band that most people haven’t heard of.

Your album contains all the tracks from your debut Bandcamp releases. Did you see it as a natural expansion of what you’d started out with, or do you feel the album presents a more varied set of tracks?

Tom: There’s no kind of plan we’re working to, but the songs all definitely have an overall style which I think sits together quite well. It’s quite hard to listen to songs you’ve been involved in writing objectively so although I hope it sounds quite varied I suppose ultimately it’s not for me to say. There’s quite varied subject matter though when it comes to the lyrics, all tied together with some common themes. Also musically there’s quite a bit of variation from track to track – there’s harmonium on some, ‘80s Casio keyboards on others… The xylophone gets a fair bit of use, as does the nylon string guitar, the Ebow and Claire’s distant, reverb-heavy harmonies, but we’ve used a few different time signatures across the record and tried to add some unexpected instruments and sounds here and there which should keep people listening.
Claire: We recorded in dribs and drabs, just putting the odd few songs on Soundcloud as and when they were finished. We then found ourselves with an album’s worth of material and had to think what to do with it. It all came together very naturally over a period of about six months. We were finding our sound as we went along, trial and error really all the way.

You have a very well-drawn sound for a band releasing their first album – was there a period of consciously attempting to “find yourself” as a band or did your style make itself clear immediately?

Claire: I suppose we’re constantly finding ourselves, experimenting with different sound effects, weird instruments and tunings. This wasn’t conscious though, just the songs naturally developing. Having said that though, our style did make itself pretty clear from the start. ‘Gather Up Your Clothes’ was recorded during the first rehearsal we ever had, it came together really easily and I reckon set us off on the right path.
Tom: I’ll agree with that, writing and recording our songs has been a surprisingly natural process so far. It’s just been a case of meeting up and recording songs in a few takes. We’re both pretty relaxed people which I think helps, not obsessing over getting things absolutely perfect – I never like it when songs sound over-produced. I prefer to listen to records that are a bit lo-fi, a bit home made.

As a duo, songwriting must be a more communal, communicative experience than for many bands. How would you say that there being only two of you has affected your work?

Claire: We work together really well. In previous bands I’ve been in there have been huge arguments when song writing, often a case of ‘too many cooks’. As there are only two of us we don’t have that problem, instead our differences in taste and opinion seem to complement each other. We’re passionate about different aspects of the music. Whilst Tom is very much into the story telling, lyrical side leaning towards the more melancholy, I’m all about melodic lines, guitar parts and harmonies, introducing an element of contrast. Kind of like the dynamic between Morrissey and Marr (or so I’d like to think!).
Tom: I’m a bit obsessed with Morrissey in all honesty. Not that I think I’m anything like him other than in a fascination with the north of England sixty or seventy years ago.
I think there just being two of us helps to keep the songs sounding personal and intimate. I’m a firm believer in less is more and I think if there were more people involved then we’d end up with parts on the songs that didn’t really need to be there. We’ve talked about getting some friends in to play with us live which would be good for some songs, ‘Another Night in the Surgery’ and ‘Are You Going to Overreact?’ in particular. We did have a rehearsal in the beginning with some friends playing drums, bass and a keyboard. Was on a Saturday morning after quite a heavy night out though and soon descended into utter chaos and farce. Fun as it was, we haven’t attempted it again since.

There seems to be a sense of both the deeply personal and the imagistic in your lyrics – are you treading the line between the two, or do you simply write that way?

Tom: It’s important to write about what you know and for me, other than living in and around London in recent years, that’s growing up in West Cumbria. So I’ve ended up writing about old mining towns, knackered industry and faded glory. The coastline along the Solway Firth is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places in Britain and I’ve always had a huge affection for the place. It can also feel like the most remote place in Britain at times, cut off from even the rest of the North West. To come back to the question though, as with most things in my life I tend to write songs without thinking too heavily about them, if you try too hard to get a particular style then it’ll end up sounding contrived. I always have images in my mind of the places I’m writing about, which presumably other people aren’t able to see, but hopefully some of it comes across.

You have a particularly English aesthetic, with unfeigned accents and talk of Bank Holidays in your songs. Do you feel as though you’re making a specifically English type of music?

Tom: I think we’ve got a fairly English sound, but I suppose you’d expect that as we’re both English. I love Graham Greene, George Orwell and The Smiths. That said though I also love John Steinbeck and think we take quite a lot from Leonard Cohen and Bill Callahan.

People should always sing in their own accent. People needn’t however always write about their own experiences, where would we be without The Final Countdown?

Claire: Yes, we’re just being ourselves. I can’t stand English people putting on dodgy American accents – any dodgy accents for that matter.

The creaks and thunderclaps of ‘A Nautical Theme’ or the echoey, diegetic noise on ‘Lock the Doors’ make for peculiarly atmospheric music. How important is the “feel” of a song to you?

Tom: Yeah the feel of a song is just as important as the music and lyrics I think, helps you connect with it. Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘The Mercy Seat’ is miles better than the original because it feels more personal, although that’s more down to Jonny Cash than him using sound effects.
I like adding texture to recordings, a bed underneath the music recorded from nature or snippets of conversations under the instruments. I’ve been out recording with an ancient Minidisc player a few times and spent some time messing about with synthesisers to get textural sounds. Anything you can’t get or make yourself though you can usually find from the Freesound Project ( which is great – you can lose hours listening to the stuff people feel a compulsion to record and put on the internet.
Claire: I LOVE the creaks and thunder in A Nautical Theme. If you close your eyes then they take you out to sea. I think they’re very important, a huge part of our sound.

What’s next for The Skeleton Dead?

Claire: More songs. We continuously write and record so I’m sure there’ll be another album’s worth of material ready to release in 2012 sometime.
Tom: Yep, more songs definitely. I really enjoy writing with Claire so there’s definitely more to come. We’ve started on the next collection of songs but aren’t really sure what we’re going to do with them yet – maybe put them together as an album next year or maybe just make them available to download one at a time as we finish them.
More live shows too. We played at a fundraiser for Hackney Pirates in Dalston Roof Park a few weeks ago which was fun, although being September extremely windy. It’d be good to do some more interesting gigs and some festivals next year. Anyone reading this, we’re available…

Where can we see you play next?

We’re having a Xmas party at The Monarch in Camden on Tuesday 13th December. Come along, drink some mulled wine and be merry/melancholy.

The Skeleton Dead’s self-titled debut album is available for free from their Bandcamp page (

The Skeleton Dead – I Get So Lonesome Without You

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