Last Harbour - Volo

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2010-02-22

What has happened to music in the North of England, once a hotbed of morbid despair, misanthropy and alienation? While London bands like The Clash, The Jam and, latterly, The Libertines offered chirpiness, attitude and gauche sloganeering, the North countered with the exquisite gloom of Joy Division, The Smiths, Pulp, The Wedding Present and The Tindersticks. Even our greatest dance-pop band - New Order - preferred to sing about pain and heartbreak, rather than about having a great Saturday night. Now, though, Johnny Marr is performing with sneery pseudo-punks The Cribs, Jarvis is rocking out with Steve Albini, and Richard Hawley, once our finest morose balladeer, is flogging posh ice-cream on the telly. Meanwhile, Northern music is all ersatz rock posing (Kasabian), gloopy sentimentalism (Elbow), and arch, clod-hopping attempts at 'wit' (Kaiser Chiefs). Are we Northerners - once proudly and unfashionably glum, truculent and miserable - losing our musical identity and lightening up?

On the evidence of Volo, the fourth album from Manchester collective Last Harbour, the answer is a resounding no. Co-produced by the band and Richard Formby - also at the helm for Wild Beasts' Two Dancers, the great Northern album of last year - Volo is a refreshingly pitch-black affair, preoccupied with death and loneliness. It brings to mind great Northern doom-mongers like Joy Division and The Tindersticks (Kevin Craig's rich baritone sounds almost exactly like Stuart Staples'), as well as Nick Cave, The National, and Glaswegian miserablists My Latest Novel. At times, the effect is astounding, but be warned: nary a shaft of light is allowed to break through the black, brooding clouds, making this an intense but somewhat difficult listen.

'Mount Analogue' is marvellous; it begins at a painfully slow pace, more than a little reminiscent of Low, and builds into something quite epic and magnificent, Craig intoning darkly about "gasoline fevers and fevered mistakes". 'The Blood is a Compass' tells of some doomed romance ("Leave a light on in the window for me/Cause darling, I'm just trying to come home") in blackly intoxicating style. 'Don't Fall' is a quite gorgeous song: a delicate acoustic guitar figure has Craig crooning over the top, "I know the devil has your name/I've seen him walk across your windowpane," before being accentuated by lushly mournful strings. At their best, the songs on Volo are timeless, polished gems, glittering darkly like obsidian.

Volo's strengths, however, turn out to be minor weaknesses, as the consistently brooding tone becomes a little wearing after a while: this album is best enjoyed in small doses. Also, it must be said that there's little truly original here, and you may feel that you'd rather just listen to The Tindersticks. But it's good to see a band so confident about their sound and their subject matter, and Last Harbour, in the classic Northern tradition, mine the rich vein of misery that they have found with style and elegance.

Pete Sykes

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