Recommended Albums #43


Stornoway: Tales from Terra Firma (2013)

Impressed by this Oxford, England band’s latest, I wanted to select a representative song to post in another category of this blog. Trouble was, I couldn’t choose between the beautifully haunting song, the smartly philosophical song, or the cheerfully whimsical song. So here we are, under the heading of Recommended Albums.

“Farewell Appalachia” is the haunting melody, and one that shows the band’s penchant for using atypical instrumentation (and even non-instruments). In the past, the sound of a saw or that of carrots being chopped have served as percussion. In this case, and fittingly so, it’s the sound of crunching leaves accompanying the scene-setting first stanza’s lyric “From the cape/To the hook/With a carpet of leaves underfoot”.

The insinuative melody evokes the work of a band like Winterpills or even the Decemberists, whose songs similarly reward repeated listening–even require repeated listening, but then sink deeper into your soul than the ephemeral pop of lesser bands.

A second point of comparison with the Decemberists is a lyric that is both of the caliber and style of Colin Meloy:

And in the house where I last held you
our bed was cast adrift all night
and you were taking me to higher ground
out of my skin above the clouds

“The Bigger Picture” rambles along to an organ/mandolin vibe as vocalist Brian Briggs puts context to mundane concerns by casting them against the larger universe. Briggs’s distinctive dialect isn’t immediately identifiable as English; rather it possesses only a vaguely European quality that lends intrigue to the band’s sound. It’s one more point of similarity to the Decemberists’ Meloy who, despite calling Portland home and being American, possesses a dialect seemingly all his own.

“The Great Procrastinator” takes a cheeky lyric tone with lines like “I’ve been busy as a beaver/And I’ll be damned if I don’t ease the flow” to an arrangement that conjures a ragtime feel, of all things.

Tales of Terra Firma is smartly engaging throughout, and Stornoway are exactly what I’d expect from a band that formed at Oxford University. Not a cup of tea for everyone, mind you. But an aromatic and gently intoxicating blend for people of a certain taste.

Listen to: “Farewell Appalachia”

Listen to: “The Bigger Picture”

Listen to: “The Great Procrastinator”

See also:

Songs You May Have Missed #23


Stornoway: “Here Comes The Blackout…!” (2010)

I love three things about this song: the melody, the voice of Brian Briggs, and the sound of a saw as subtle added percussion in the final chorus (coming in at about 1:40 and ending with a piece of wood dropping to the floor).

It’s from Stornoway’s Beachcomber’s Windowsill album, a charmingly understated and ruminitave debut which, according to Amazon’s band bio “has taken more than five years to make; a labor of love that includes over a hundred different instruments, the chimes of a Dutch church bell, one Morse Code message and the sound of several carrots being chopped”.

They went back to Oxford, where the band was formed, to make this video for “Fuel Up”. Love the autoharp on this one:

Although they may not possess the one dimension that could push them toward Decemberists-like mainstream success (namely, the ability to rock out) they do share a lot with that band: unconventional lead vocals, some left-of-center instrumentaion, British folk influences, and songs strewn with literary refences. But this is a band I don’t need to rock out, or to change anything about the beautiful sound they make. Okay, maybe one thing: don’t take five years for the next record.

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