The Self Help Group have this month released their excellent debut album Not Waving, But Drowning. The Brighton based five-piece have been charming local and festival audiences since 2009 with music that draws on influences from both sides of the Atlantic, polished arrangements and songs abundant with narrative splendour.
Americana? Yes…. but then again, I think not. The Self Help Group are one of those bands who just won’t allow a label to stick, which is very rarely a bad thing. The glorious, rich music they create will, in the space of a single song, put you in mind of Pentangle, Crosby Stills & Nash and The Cowboy Junkies. And they do this in such an appealing way that it all makes perfect sense.
Many comparisons have been drawn, but the one thing The Self Help Group share with all of these perceived influences is impressive vocal performances. Each song is delivered with luxurious multi-part harmonies, provided by founder Mark Bruce, and sisters Clara Wood-Keeley and Sarah Natalie Wood. The effect can be soothing or rousing; a soft murmur or a gently insistent rallying call.
There’s a similarly capacious approach to the music that underpins the vocals. The foundation of guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion is supplemented by atmospheric strings and brass. Add to this the rich production provided by Union Record’s Jamie Freeman and you find music that, although without doubt complex in its execution, is still very gentle on the senses. Even at it’s most elaborate, the music in Not Waving, But Drowning flows like a river, rather than crashing like a tide.
But there’s a musical trinity happening here, and the river has hidden depths – the songs themselves. Mark Bruce, it would seem, is a hoarder of stories, old and new. Those that take his fancy are re-born as songs; each one emotionally laden – with sadness, humour and tragedy all playing their part.
Needles, exemplifies all three of these qualities. With an opening Joe Boyd could take pride in, the story unfolds of a British POW hiding a coded two finger salute to Hitler in a tapestry. In contrast, Murmuration celebrates an aerial spectacle with icy banjo and bells. Hauntingly beautiful, the tragedy of The Rapture will lull you off to a very peaceful place. Contrasts abound – Uniontown is a protest song where the beauty of the song itself almost seems at odds with the subject matter. Sand enjoys the best of both worlds with gentle banjo and percussion before piano and vocals lead to its anthemic conclusion.
Some songs make use of a sparser, more direct arrangement. This works perfectly in Jerome and Irving, leaving the story of twin brothers who could never be parted to tell itself; or the metronomic Prisoner, whose starkness makes it all the more noticeable. In Big Nose George there’s another dramatic, and somewhat broader, soundscape, as a wild west outlaw tells of his own gruesome fate.
So far The Self Help Group seem to be Brighton’s best kept secret, I hope that changes soon. I’d love hear these extravagant, ambitious arrangements translated for a live set. I have a distinct feeling the band would pull it off rather well. Not Waving, But Drowning charms the listener on every level – the three part harmonies are spine-tingling, the expansive arrangements warm and inviting, and the lyrical content fascinating. A wider audience must surely follow.
Live at Union Music Store:
The Self Help Group are:
Mark Bruce on vocals, guitars, banjo, charrango and keyboards, Clara Wood-Keeley and Sarah Natalie Wood, both on vocals and xylophone, Ian Bliszczak on bass and Paddy Keeley on banjo and guitar
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Saturday 2nd March: with House of Hats
The Harvest Sessions, The Brunswick, Hove
Saturday 23rd March
Con Club, Lewes. Supporting Harry Oakwood. Tickets here
Fri May 24th – Sun May 26th (day/time TBC)
Meadowlands Festival, East Sussex
Friday 31st May
The Brunswick, Hove