Stornoway - Beachcomber's Windowsill - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Stornoway - Beachcomber's Windowsill

by Pete Sykes Rating:7 Release Date:2010-05-24

Britain's 'nu-folk' scene has been developing over the last few years into something distinctly unappealing. The dreary whimsy of Noah and the Whale, the glum solipsism of Laura Marling, the shouty sentimentalism of the wretched Mumford and Sons - it's a grim list. Of course it's difficult to be a folk musician and do interesting and unusual things with your music - by definition it's a conservative style, and it all tends to conform to certain musical, instrumental (the dreaded fiddle) and even lyrical criteria. But at the same time it's not constrained by hoary old rock mythology or cliche, and there are plenty of American artists - Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan and Wilco the best - who draw on folk tradition and still manage to make electrifying, intelligent music. Stornoway - from Oxford, rather than the Western Isles - are scarcely different to their British nu-folk peers either texturally, atmospherically or musically. But, crucially, there's more at work on Beachcomber's Windowsill, their debut album, namely subtlety, maturity, musical nuance, and even a fair amount of wit. While, at times, it comes close to the kind of music you hear soundtracking those maddeningly twee mobile phone adverts, the album does enough to suggest that Stornoway may just make British folk music interesting and relevent again.

The youthful quartet became the first unsigned band to appear on Later With Jools Holland, and they clearly have a command of songwriting ahead of many bands who are well into their careers. Opening track and single 'Zorbing' is engaging from the very first line, "Conkers shining on the ground/ The air is cooler/ And I feel like I just started uni." It's sweet, plaintive, and there are plenty of similarly striking lines scattered throughout the song - "Send my body off to work/ But leave my senses/ In orbit over south east London," being just one. But the key is the chorus: so simple, pretty and effective that you want to hear it over and over again. It's such a beautiful, well constructed and self-contained little song, clear evidence of natural writing talent.

'I Saw You Blink' is similarly economical and expertly assembled, surges of organ and pangs of slide guitar adding extra dimensions to an already immaculate love song. 'The Coldharbour Lane' begins dourly with a minor key fiddle and the line, "I am a seabird/ You are the Arctic Ocean," but it's saved from dreary tedium by the fiddle and piano occasionally, and unexpectedly, going crazy and dissonant (in a way that happily reminded Soundblab of brilliant, and sadly-missed late-90s Welsh psychadelic folksters Gorky's Zygotic Mynci). 'We Are the Battery Human' is a whimsical sing-song over a backdrop of banjo, and although some might be annoyed by its sarcastic skewering of the tedium of working in an office, it has enough charm and smart lines ("Outside the window spring is here/ But we're gonna hibernate all year") to just about convince. 'Here Comes the Blackout...!' is a slightly gauche but good-natured paean to optimism and love in troubled times, and features another of those intoxicating choruses. 'Watching Birds', meanwhile, is a rockier number, supplying a welcome change of pace on a record where the tempo rarely rises above 'relaxed'.

There are, as mentioned above, moments when the album sounds a little too close to Noah and the Whale for comfort. 'Fuel Up', 'Boats and Trains' and 'The End of the Movie' are slowies, and while they provide pleasant enough background noise, they are all lacking that touch of colour or texture needed to raise them above the level of dirge. On these tracks, and on closer 'Long Distance Lullaby', Stornoway prove themselves a little too reliant on cliche and convention for Beachcomber's Windowsill to be judged a complete success. But let's not be churlish - this is a lovely record, delightfully written, lovingly played and cleanly produced. And while there's too much filler, 'Zorbing', 'I Saw You Blink' and 'Here Comes the Blackout...!' see Stornoway outstrip all of their nu-folk contemporaries, managing as they do to combine charm, intelligence and classy, quality songwriting that's remarkable coming from a band so young.

Pete Sykes

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