There’s a line in Lonely Resonator, track five of Fish & Bird’s fourth studio release Something In The Ether that summarises one angle of their alt-folk; ‘..the tune sounds Appalachian and the words are modern’. I say one angle, because there are many; the journey isn’t linear, the approach varied and the influences wide. The PR provided by their label suggests Fish & Bird are re-imagining folk for a new generation, but there’s a couple of clues in their bio that suggest to me they regularly go backwards before they go forwards, not least the words ‘experimental’ and ‘opus’. I do believe we may be listening to prog-folk here…
If that’s a scary proposition, be not afraid. Images of Rick Wakeman standing atop a large castle wielding twenty-two keyboards and trying not to catch his cape on the drum riser can be banished. Taylor Ashton, Adam Iredale-Gray, Ben Kelly, Ryan Bouer and Zoe Guigueno dress more like REM’s lumberjack cousins and their inspired take on roots music is, I’m guessing, a natural evolution of the fact that home is Mayne Island, a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. When there are only 900 people between you and the sea, your imagination has to work harder.
Think instead of quirky key and tempo changes, often more than once a song, and enterprising use of acoustic instruments allied to the application of rock’s sturdier lead guitar and drum patterns alongside banjo, upright bass and fiddle. It works.
Opener Cold Salty has more twists than a slinky and travels just as sinuously through a tale of someone contemplating life’s journey against the redemptive wash of immersion in the Atlantic. There are a couple of great couplets here too, early markers of Ashton’s fine way with words; ‘Baby I miss you / and if not to kiss you / I don’t know what this mouth is for’ and ‘How high is the ladder? / What does it matter / So long as you can see the next rung?’ The Lake’s organic introduction is rudely awakened by a rock-steady beat and fluent fiddle riff. The middle-eight uses complex bass notes and splash cymbals to highlight the words. Something In The Ether runs on fiddle rails whilst the vocal moves at half-speed underneath. For the second verse the fiddle re-joins the pack and the chorus pulls all the elements together before a guitar solo reminiscent of Rush’s Alex Lifeson weaves its way in and out of the melody. It’s a heady combination.
A highlight is the aforementioned Lonely Resonator, the imagery so good the song seems somehow familiar but new too. It’s a pop song in wolf’s clothing, the analogies splendidly knowing and innocent at the same time; ‘We sit in the concrete stairwell / It sounds like a cathedral / Reflections ward off evil’. Boots is a Morricone spaghetti-Western that segues into a bass-led vehicle for some fine banjo and cod-reggae breaks (no, seriously). Of all the songs, Rivers approaches most closely the independence, individuality and disconnect generated by Fish & Bird’s roots, a Celtic fiddle line the transport for a four line vocal that exposes universally recognised emotions, ‘I was holding out for something that I could call my own / so I called you to say “don’t wait up for me” / We are rivers and we cut our own ways through / this land and we take great delight in our own company’. The song is extended with various musical breaks from the bass and fiddle that sound like the folk equivalent of Hendrix sparking off Noel Redding (less hair and flares, more ceilidh lock-ins).
Go-To-Bed-Light wraps the 9 song album up in just over thirty minutes with another meditation of the transformative powers of love and nature. By the time it finishes, you could be forgiven for being exhausted, your mind unable to cope with the amount of inputs it’s being asked to cope with, but instead I found myself excited, the way you are on a rollercoaster; all the fun is in the ride and you don’t have to expend any energy to enjoy it.
Review by: Paul Woodgate