Stornoway’s Tales From Terra Firma
Three years. Sounds a long time doesn’t it? I only ask this quite mundane question because the release of Stornoway’s debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill seemed to hit the shops fairly recently. To discover it was actually released in 2010 is mighty scary and is a stark self-realisation that life is rushing by pretty darn fast.
I’m sure it’s gone even faster for the Oxford quartet who spent those last three years straddling the globe performing to vast numbers of the world’s population. I witnessed them headline the wonderful Haldern Pop Festival in Germany and they also appeared at the UK’s prestigious Glastonbury three-day mudfest and Australia’s legendary Laneway Festival. On top of that they spent all of last year composing and recording a far more expansive and ambitious second album, albeit closer to home in their own converted garage studio and within the idyllic rolling hills of the Cotswolds.
Tales From Terra Firma appears on the scene at a time when the group’s contemporaries Mumford and Sons are the darlings of, well.. everyone it seems. Stornoway have been lumped in with the Brit Award-winning Mumfords and the rest of the ‘new folk’ movement, however I always thought that comparison was a major misnomer and did the band a disservice. To my ears, I heard more of The Decemberists and 4AD label mates Mountain Goats in their musical and lyrical palette.
This new release is no exception. Album opener You Take Me As I Am flies out of the traps with swirls of Hammond organ, while Farewell Appalachia features prominent use of the hammered dulcimer. This under-used instrument always reminds me of 1960’s spy films starring Michael Caine in a trench coat. But I digress, back to the album.
Lead singer and principle lyricist Brian Briggs has a beautiful way with words that recall Stuart Murdoch’s narrative and playful songs on Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress record. His vocal delivery won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that shouldn’t be a stumbling block to an emerging lyrical talent. Hook, Line, Sinker takes the listener on a bike ride across London and the song conveys a more thrilling journey than I for one would have expected. The lyrics are complimented by electronica elements in the song that are a welcome introduction to Stornoway’s sonic ambitions.
Tales From Terra Firma closes with two lovely pieces of music. The record’s highlight The Ones We Hurt the Most has lush strings and acoustic guitar that recall the beauty and sadness of R.E.M. during their Automatic for the People heyday. It is one of those tunes you have to drop everything and just submit to. The album closes with November Song, a simple arrangement of voice and guitar. After all the weird and wonderful instrumentation included on the previous eight tracks, it emphasises what fine songwriters Stornoway are when you just strip it all back to basics.
If I’m being totally honest I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for the second album from Stornoway. Now it’s here however, I wait with anticipation and a tinge of excitement to see where they may go next after this engaging and melodically rewarding record.
Review by Gary Page