Week #74 in my 6 Album Sunday Log featured three artists across the broad folk/rock spectrum. We had the first sighting of the accomplished acoustic guitar troubadour Laura Marling, sandwiched between the traditional yet original folk song of the Unthanks sisters and Midlake’s easy going yet dark brand of Americana.
With Thanks For The Unthanks
It is great to come across something very new and exceptional while researching and writing this blog. I was vaguely aware of The Unthanks via their stunning cover of Starless by King Crimson (both respectful of the original yet very different too). But hearing Here’s The Tender Coming has taken my admiration to a whole new level.
The heavily accented folk singing took me a few plays to tune in to. On very first listen it sounds a bit twee and too much “finger in thee ear down the Irish pub” type stuff. But once I got it the power of the songs (mostly covers or trads. set to spare arrangements of strings, brass, and piano) quickly won me over.
Very strange to be reminded of King Crimson and Yes!
Strangely one of the bands they remind me of is actually Islands era King Crimson. Also equally strangely fellow proggers the Jon Anderson fronted Yes, and Efterklang and Philip Glass, plus more obviously a bit of early Fairport Convention too and the more edgy and discordant Incredible String Band. But overall it’s the type of music that makes me think of pagan festivals and dancing around in animal masks in The Wicker Man.
The title song refers to the name of the ship, “The Tender”, coming to press gang men to sea:
Here’s The Tender coming, pressing all the men
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s The Tender coming off at Shield’s Bar
Here’s The Tender coming full of men of war
Hide thee canny hinny, hide thyself away
Hide thee till the frigate makes for Druridge Bay
If they take thee Geordie who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead
One of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year. The Unthanks will be making an appearance in the Best New Discovery section of my Year End Review when it comes around.
First Nu Folk From Laura
Purely coincidentally, in this week of suffragettes and women’s rights celebrations, the delectable Unthanks singing is flanked by two other (mostly) female voices. First we have Laura Marling with her 2008 debut album Alas I Cannot Swim (I was surprised to learn this was her debut thinking she had been around a lot longer than ten years). She is no doubt a special talent with a nice voice and an original guitar technique employing interesting tunings.
This album is pretty good. Essentially just guitar and voice but some tracks are fleshed out with string arrangements and several more upbeat numbers employ a full band with bass and drums like the jaunty Cross Your Fingers. Occasionally she goes off into one of those “sing really fast and fit as many words into a breath as possible” type moments most annoyingly employed by vocal gymnasts like Joni Mitchell.
There is a bit of the pagan tradition too in this music and some Alice in Wonderland like line drawings in the artwork but the imagery evoked by the music is not so vivid as that of the Unthanks. I think it’s called nu-folk.
Marling can be forgiven the close association with the very mainstream Mumford and Sons who appear in part on this album, but as folk music goes I actually find the traditional old-folk of Here’s The Tender Coming more appealing.
The Courage To Go It Alone
Keeping up the standard (and character) of this most enjoyable week we have another excellent album from a band I’ve not heard before. Fronted not by a female voice, but the very gentle tones of Tim Smith, Midlake are an americana/folk rock band from Texas.
The vibe on The Courage of Others is again on the pagan side starting with the hooded figures on the cover (as was also the case on the striking cover of their debut album The Trials of Van Occupanther).
The music gently rocks along and the sound is excellent. They so remind me of another band or artist generally and through particularly tracks. I just can’t quite nail who I’m thinking of. I’ve considered Fairport Convention, The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Wilco, Iron and Wine, and Bear’s Den.
Bring Down sounds just like a track off of Radiohead’s OK Computer and Fortune is very Simon and Garfunkel. Or perhaps overall they remind me of John Grant which wouldn’t be too surprising as they played backing on Grant’s debut solo album The Queen of Denmark.
It’s those laid back breathy harmonised vocals most of all — a vocalist does seem to give a band most of it’s character and on listening to some of their other music including a KEXP session I figured they weren’t sounding quite as good as on The Courage of Others.
Further investigation revealed that lead vocalist and songwriter Tim Smith had left and under slightly mysterious circumstances. Apparently a follow up to The Courage of Others had been recorded over a couple of years and was almost ready for release but did not come up to Smith’s painstaking standards (he was only happy with one song). Smith decided to leave to pursue his own path and the remaining band scrapped the complete recording and rewrote and reproduced a completely new album in only six months.
Musically we didn’t see things the same way… you can hear from their new album our tastes and sensibilities are quite different and always have been.
The new album became Antiphon and with guitarist Eric Pulido taking on lead vocals Midlake had become yet another band (after Genesis and Can who I have discussed recently) choosing not to replace their main vocalist:
Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate.
You can sense some frustration and resentment in Pulido’s words.
What of Tim Smith’s new project? Well not much so far. It seems something is restricting his output and it isn’t clear whether this is perfectionism, personal issues, or plain old writer’s block. The website for his new project Harp leaves this message:
I’ll give another update when there’s something more to say, but if you don’t hear from me for a long time that only means I’m still at it. Thanks for understanding. Peace and Love, Tim
For me this fuels the mystery further and I’ll certainly be intrigued with whatever he comes out with. It’s displaying all the hallmarks of being a masterpiece!
Now imagine my surprise when clicking the facebook link on the Harp band website I am taken to a post showing Tim Smith in a Brighton pub last April! He was over here recording some music with a local band Hollow Hand who I’ve not heard of but will certainly be checking out. The intrigue deepens.
I do love discovering new music and to think this rich seam of sonic gold from Midlake was mined from a punt on a £1.49 charity bin album. By the way to continue my log of the most common charity bin albums it is only fair to add these two perennial repeat offenders: