Over the last ten years the Glasgow folk and improv scene has evolved into a vast and complex network of symbiotically linked bands. Amongst the first were noisy avant-garde free-folkers Directing Hand and their straight-up folk-rock counterparts Lucky Luke, who shared a common member in drummer, composer and tireless promoter Alex Neilson. Neilson went on to form the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Trembling Bells, featuring Ashtray Navigations guitarist Ben Reynolds. Meanwhile, Finnish-English vocalist Hanna Tuulikki (who also sang with Directing Hand and later offshoot Scatter) was fronting her own band, Nalle, purveyors of weird and wonderful experimental folk.
With such prolific cross-pollination amongst bands Tuulikki and Reynolds were almost biologically predestined to collaborate at some point, and the meeting of minds duly came about in 2012 when they formed Two Wings (named, confusingly, after a Reynolds solo album) and released Love’s Springs, a record on which classic rock jostled for position with a predominant harmonic folk-rock sound. A Wake offers more of the same, but this time the American classic rock influence is, if anything, even more distinguishable.
The easiest comparison to make is with Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, and indeed the kinetic guitar solo that kicks off lead track Peace Fear gives fellow Mac-lovers Midlake (circa Van Occupanther) a run for their money. Both the arrangement and the musicianship are tight and focussed, perhaps unexpectedly so given the free-form and drone heritage of the two main players, but the song soars on Tuulikki’s vocal performance.
But there are deeper influences on show. Adieu’s tenderness recalls Sandy Denny or Richard and Linda Thompson, although Reynolds’ guitar is less Fairport and more Crazy Horse. As the song peaks it also veers into country-rock territory – a seamless transition from Linda Thompson to Linda Rondstadt and back again. Loveless, by contrast, sticks closer to the British tradition and gives Tuulikki a freer rein to indulge the flighty, Kate Bush side of her vocal delivery, and We Can Show You More is a brisk ensemble piece akin to Steeleye Span.
Throughout A Wake, Tuulikki’s voice proves a remarkable tool. Whereas earlier in her career she drew comparisons with Joanna Newsom and Björk (particularly on Nalle’s first two records, where the nature of the material called for vocal witchiness of Baba Yaga proportions), here the formal constraints of traditional or popular songwriting give her fewer chances to trill and warble. She is required to exhibit a greater level of control and a greater understanding of melody, and she gets it just right. And yes, there is something of Stevie Nicks in her ability to wring unexpected emotion out of a simple melodic phrase. But there is something else too, a playfulness and unwillingness to completely jettison her idiosyncrasies that lends itself to comparisons with Slapp Happy vocalist Dagmar Krause or, to pick a contemporary example, American folk singer Jessica Pratt.
Far from being completely aligned with any single genre at any given point, A Wake takes its influences from the strangest of places. This cut-up approach is at its most satisfying on You Give Me Love, where folky flutes trade places with soulful horns, or on the lovely, leisurely closing track, Go To Sleep, where the band (including second vocalist Lucy Duncombe) swap sweet harmonies before Reynolds’ typically fried guitar battles for supremacy with a horn section that is at one moment funereal, the next exhilarating. It is a suitable way of ending a beautiful album that proves that the venerable Glasgow music scene still has plenty of life and originality left in it.
Review by: Thomas Blake
24 – Threadfest @ Delius Arts & Cultural Centre, Bradford
25 – The Bridge Hotel, Newcastle Upon Tyne
26 – Grain Barge, Bristol
29 – Castle Hotel, Manchester
30 – The Tin at The Coal Vaults, Coventry
31 – Sebright Arms, London
21 – Nice N’ Sleazy, Glasgow
A Wake is released 19th May 2014 via Tin Angel