Light The Boats, the second solo album by Gill Sandell, manages what might, on paper, seem impossible by balancing subtlety with a knack for coming up with melodies that stay with the listener long after the record has finished. Written during a retreat-of-sorts to the Outer Hebrides and recorded in rural Norfolk, the atmosphere that pervades Light The Boats reflects the peace and tranquility of these places yet the result is always outward-looking and never self-absorbed.
Scheduled for release in September, the unique sound of this record has already caught the ears of the great and the good, Dermot O’Leary and Cerys Matthews among them. Opener The Border – first aired on Cerys Matthews’ BBC 6 Music show – builds slowly to its peak with Gill aided by Anna, Emily and Jo, her bandmates in Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo; the effect is like watching the mountains emerge as the morning sun burns back the mist.
Sparkle Eyes stands at the intersection of Celtic folk and Americana, driven by Ted Barnes’ banjo and some inventive percussion – including, mysteriously, suitcase and pool table samples. It’s followed by the more muted Distance which is bolstered by a guest appearance by Adrian Crowley on guitar. The arrangement of The Listening Ear is as deceptively simple as the melody is sweet: the crashing waves of Ted Barnes’ guitars surfing the rhythm section (Andrew Rayner and Owen Turner) through a thunderstorm of a middle eight before ebbing away to silence.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere the ability of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo to revisit and rework earlier songs for the live stage, coming up with new arrangements of old favourites which are true to the originals while effortlessly creating quite radical reinterpretations and on Rooms For Sleep Gill has accomplished a similar feat in the studio. A reworking of Seventeen Days (the B-side to 2011’s Fingers and Toes single), this confident new arrangement foregrounds Gill’s own accordion playing while the addition of Liz Moore’s harp adds a sense of space over which the massed harmony vocals float like clouds on a hot summer’s day.
The skeletal arrangement of Sickle Swing moves at a measured pace in keeping with its subject matter, and the combination of almost whispered vocals, strings and sickle samples combine to create a hypnotically foreboding atmosphere. For me, this is one of the standout tracks of the album and, given that it’s received airplay from Dermot O’Leary on his Radio 2 show, it seems I’m not alone in thinking that.
Every Willing Answer is as near as Light The Boats gets to a solo performance by Gill; her precise fingerpicking and soft, clear voice accompanied only by what sounds like a howling gale but which is, in fact, a ‘paracetemol sample’. No, I don’t know either! Someday, with its bucolic lyric, is given an appropriately summery setting by the close-knit strings of Anna and Jo fluttering like butterflies over Ali Friend’s sparse double bass.
The polka-tinged feel of Forget Our Fires with its multiple harmonies paves the way for the short but very sweet Wide-Eyed Wandering as Gill’s flute provides the perfect complement to Liz Moore’s swirling harp. The Old Whirlpool draws the album to a close with some crisp electric guitar over understated harmonies and distant piano managing to achieve the impressive feat of being simultaneously melancholy and optimistic.
This album is an object lesson in the art and craft of songwriting; a shimmering tapestry of sound with a mesmerising beauty, Light The Boats must surely rank amongst the year’s best records.
Review by: Helen Gregory
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Light The Boats is released 16 September 2013
Gill will be touring with the new album from 20 September – from Teesdale to the West Country to London:
• Friday 20 September
The Old Courthouse, Thirsk
• Thurs 26 September 2013
The Brunswick, Hove
• Saturday 21 September
Club Cotherstone, Barnard Castle (Tickets £6 in advance / £8 door by email or call 01833 650914)
• Friday 27 September
Cambridge Folk Club
• Sunday 22 September
House gig, Chester
• Saturday 28 September
House gig, Salisbury
• Tuesday 24 September
The Prince Albert, Stroud
• Sunday 29 September
The Green Note, Camden (Album Launch!)
• Wednesday 25 September
House gig, Herefordshire