Saturday, 6 April 2013

REVIEW: Stornoway - Tales From Terra Firma

*Originally published for Artrocker (12/3/13)

When this studious Oxford bunch were tipped for big things in 2010, there was little doubt that their charming folk pop would appeal to the mainstream. In the years since, Stornoway have toured extensively, signed to 4AD and released their praised debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill. But breathe their name and some people still think you’re talking about that Scottish town on weather forecasts. Perhaps their second release will put them on the map.

‘You Take Me As I am’ welcomes listeners in medias res, with burring gospel keys, playful bass and drums akimbo. Unfortunately, it feels as if you are trespassing upon the band’s hodgepodge experimentalism and it's a messy introduction to Tales From Terra Firma.

Following track, ‘Farewell Appalachia’, is arguably the strongest on the album. A Middle-Eastern zither dances around warm acoustics and harmonies, whilst jazz rhythms carry a dulcimer in woozy enchantment. It’s a triumph and will compel you to hit repeat.

Exasperatingly, the mature moments stemming from tracks like ‘Farewell Appalachia’ are very few and far between in the album’s early stages. ‘The Bigger Picture’sees a return to Stornoway’s idiosyncratic happy-go-lucky pop and feels like it belongs to their previous release, save for the rather REM-inspired mandolin. Brian Briggs’ sparkling vocals often fail to command attention above the rollicking rhythms and, sadly, the tune fades into the ether. 

'Hook, Line, Sinker’ tells a nice story of journeying by the Thames to meet a lover, but musically-speaking,what the hell is it? Oddball phaser effects, rhythms unsure of their direction and removed vocals are but a few of its quirky components. It’s a confusing listen, written in what appears to be a wacky stream of consciousness. If opener ‘You Take Me As I am’is a bit messy, this is chaotic. 

The cascading guitars in ‘(A Belated) Invite To Eternity’ owe a lot to Vampire Weekend and nicely break up the early tracks. Rather cleverly, Stornoway have planted the strongest songs in the second half of the album, leaving a lasting impression of infectious melodies. 

Among these is the meaty ‘Knock Me On The Head’ with its joyful bass, seaside keys and trigger-sharp harmonies and the back-to-basics folk ballad, ‘November Song.’The most dramatic song on the album, ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’,hears an Appalachian dulcimer glide over rich bodied harmonies –something Fleet Foxes could have penned. Briggs and co. have absolute conviction in every word they spit whilst this brooding, experimental Americana builds and builds, and it’s beautiful to listen to.

With its smorgasbord of instruments, Tales From Terra Firma is much bolder than its predecessor, but its weakness lies in the frustrating dichotomy between fresher sounds and the band's old folk-pop roots. Thankfully, it’s a healthy step forward.

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