Ah, late summer. Dappled sunlight on half-full pint glasses. Unpicked blackberries rotting on scrubby bushes next to junction six of the M25. That endless “is it cold enough yet to wear a jacket?” debate. What better time to don a stout pair of headphones and shut out the rapidly autumning world with some new music. It still being sort-of summer, perhaps some rustic, acoustic-edged flavours might be the order of the day, but nothing too twee, or indeed too cider-swilling, and definitely nothing that could be Instagrammed next to David Cameron at the Wilderness festival. How about…
Sails by The Travelling Band (Sideways Saloon). There’s something incredibly refreshing about this record; I’d be a very lazy writer indeed if I used the phrase “life-affirming”, but hey, everyone needs to have their life vigorously affirmed once in a while. A conventional guitar band setup mingles with lapsteel, keyboard, violin and the occasional parping horn to conjure up a dizzying rush of melodic optimism. There are moments when the Manchester group’s music misses a small dose of originality, for sure, but the songs crack along with such a swing that, after a few, you’ve largely stopped caring. The best tracks – Into The Water, Mopping Forwards, Unlike You – call to mind what might happen if The Decemberists formed a supergroup with Elbow after kidnapping the singer from The Bluetones, and believe me, I consider that the heartiest of compliments.
When was the last time you bought a folk concept album about battles and various shenanigans in medieval Northumberland? Me, it’s been a while. I was steered (belatedly, I must admit: this record came out in June) towards Richard Dawson‘s Peasant (Domino/Weird World) when I started to notice that practically every time I Shazammed an interesting-sounding Radio 6 Music track in the late evening, it was one of Dawson’s. And the majority of this album is truly extraordinary: huge, bruised hunks of detuned acoustic guitar, ear-spinning riffs that sound like they’re being played on a broken Victorian children’s toy, zombified chants and bursts of random static and feedback; but the crazy thing is, it’s kinda catchy. Some of these melodies wouldn’t seem out of place on a Chainsmokers record, rendered by Dawson’s tortured but somehow full-bodied yelp: think Everything Everything’s Jonathan Higgs being forced to record all his vocal takes after a subterranean escape from Shawshank prison. My focus wavers towards the end of the LP, but then that could be just me – and in a sense, Peasant is a perfect antidote to these itchy, jerky, attention-deficit times.
Finally, the return of Miles Hunt & Erica Nockalls, the creative engine room and heart of The Wonder Stuff. I realise I bang on about the Stuffies with almost geriatric frequency, but hey, to me, the world will be a slightly better place with each new person that discovers what flipping ace songwriters they are. On We Came Here To Work (Good Deeds Music), the pair experiment in an area of their range I’ve always found particularly rewarding: the acoustic, introspective, meditative zone, from whence older tracks such as Sing The Absurd and Unfaithful sprung. And it’s a good move; minus the pressure to create their usual hook-laden stompfests, they find themselves heading down the sort of harmonic avenues and lyrical streams-of-consciousness that Hunt was free to explore with his “anti-Britpop” outfit Vent 414, but this time accompanied by Nockalls’ lush string arrangements and Cocteaus-esque BVs. The title track and Witnesses hum with longing and an undeniable sense of space, while A Matter Of Circumstance and If I Were You crackle with an edgy nervousness not usually found on so-called “acoustic” albums. Check it out – The Size Of A Cow it most certainly ain’t.
And the music plays on, the leaves gradually turn golden brown, texture like sun, while the bank holiday traffic eases and the schools finally, finally, go back. Autumn will be upon us, and the band for whom I hit and strum things shall also be releasing something. I’ll tell you about that next time; but for now, hit the download button on these three excellent records and get that glass of lukewarm cider down you…
The Travelling Band and Richard Dawson albums are out now; Miles & Erica’s is out September 9.
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