Apple Of My Eye are a band that FRUK have been following for a couple of years and more now. It’s heartening therefore to report that their early promise has crystallised perfectly into the salty tales of Seven Tides, their imminent second album. It’s a work of considerable wit and imagination, built on their core strengths, blending some very fine playing with the exceptional use of their massed voices, to create something totally unique, quite unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. It is of course also beautifully arranged and recorded, put together with such skill that everything seems so perfectly in its place. Indeed you could say, “All is shipshape and Bristol fashion.”
Whilst biographical detail of Apple Of My Eye is limited, this much is given in the press release for Seven Tides. Although they originally hail from Bristol, the band now call London home and more specifically, Chris Rusbridge lives on a narrow boat. That’s significant in that the boat is the occasional venue for rehearsals, which have a way of turning into impromptu gigs, attracting local water folk and passers by. The press release also reveals they have a habit of starting equally spontaneous singing sessions in pubs, where initially bemused patrons end up being thoroughly entertained. Both of these incidentals indicate a level of spontaneity, but also a measure of confidence that seems to flow naturally through the album. The latter also highlights the most obvious strength of the band, in that all of them sing.
Outside of Apple Of My Eye, four of the band make their living from music. Kit Massey (Violin) and Phil Cornwell (Bass) are both full time professional musicians. Cornwell is currently the musical director of West End musical The Scotsboro’ Boys and Massey clearly has an adventurous side, having been a violinist with the Santiago Philharmonic in Chile, before working as a session musician with artists as diverse as Emile Sande, Dizzie Rascal, Muse and Jamie Cullum. Arran Glass (Vocals and Guitar) and Alex Scott (Mandolin) share the theatrical leanings of Kit, both being professional Actor-Musicians and Puppeteers who perform and compose music for a variety of theatre and television productions and programmes.
The other trio in the band can claim to be steeped in folk music, siblings Chris (Bouzouki), Dan (Harmonica) and Ellie Rusbridge (Vocals) come from a rich heritage, as their parents met in a folk club and still perform in their own folk band Thornbridge. Confusingly the current pictures of Apple Of My Eye, show a six piece line up, sans Ellie, but she is definitely a part of the record, although perhaps not on every track.
The album was recorded at North London’s Cowshed Studios by the hugely respected folk and jazz engineer Joe Leach. The studio has played host to a diverse clientele, but is well known in jazz circles, where the emphasis is on capturing a live sound, something which Joe is noted for. It also offers a blend of the old and new, mixing digital convenience with old school analogue tape machine knowhow, to get the best possible sound. As has been noted here before, recording to tape can be fraught if the artist isn’t properly prepared, but that’s clearly not an issue here as there’s an organic quality to the arrangements, with appropriately enough, a natural fluidity to the song structures and sequencing.
There are a generous 15 tracks in all on Seven Tides, described on their website as, “Folk music for the drunks, the drowned and the lost at sea.” It’s a peculiar demographic, but immediately suggestive of a keen sense of humour, that caries through into their tag of, “Brand new old folk songs,” that in turn finds its place in the playfulness of some of the writing and musicality. Whilst they clearly take their instruments very seriously, they are good enough players to have some fun with them in the process of making this record. Perhaps there’s a little latent theatricality seeping through from their other lives, which manifests in their gift for a yarn and some striking use of their voices to populate these songs with real character and characters.
The opening trio of songs gave some indication of the range of Apple Of My Eye and also set up the nautical theme of Seven Tides, which runs through several of the songs. Don’t Go To The Sea, which opens, has an ominous sense of some unnamed malevolence, captured in the lines, “Is there anybody there? The sea goes dark, still the air, how the wind blows cold.” The lead voice starts with a deep, sonorous, baritone quality, but has the range to rise through the octaves, while the rest of the band add counter melody, with lines that somehow add to the disquiet. One of the voices goes very low indeed, while the double bass also thrums in the lower registers. A lone guitar plays a delicate lick and the instrumentation starts to build with first the mandolin and bouzouki and then just a hint of harmonica and violin, as the breakdowns between verses take on a Celtic lilt. Half way through the song Ellie takes over the lead and her voice swoops in with a vibrant tremor, then she and Arran lead the song towards its brooding climax.
The mood is completely changed by Easter Island as it starts a cappella with the lead voice once more in the lower register and the lines, “It was four in the morning, on a churning sea and I was up on the poop deck, just my baby and me.” It’s a humorous proposition, which gives way to billowing ebb and flow, as once more the massed voices join with lines that rise and fall. The chorus is also clever and playful as they sing, “See a… See a seagull flying east love, Easter Island’s where I’ll be love.”
Burn Sir! Combines elements of both and also introduces a strong narrative with a back and forth dialogue between the voices. The story finds someone returning home, presumably from some ocean going adventure, to fulfil his promise to a young lass left behind, only for things to not be as expected and to take a turn for the sinister. It has a mystical slightly surreal ballad quality, that also runs through songs like The Road To London, which finds a depleted and ravaged crew of just 20 souls landing at Lowestoft. It’s sung completely a cappella in three part harmony, and as the party makes its way, they get whittled down as they head along the road. Despite the line, “Some good rises from the wreckage of the earth,” there is no happy ending.
There’s a sunnier side to Greenwhich Town, also follows in the ballad mode, this time with a witty take on the Puss In Boots sets off to sea motif, although here form the perspective of the owner left behind. Strongest of all perhaps in this remaking of the tradition, is the complex Ghosts, which starts out with the massed voices and humorous account of death by booze, before casting it’s net wider to take in the Armada, wreckers and more over a lively backing of guitar and bouzouki, with feisty fiddle and woozy harmonica. It’s not all nautical, however, as the most bizarre tale of all, Jean-Michel, finds the titular thief meeting his end stuck in a chimney. Mind you try Googling ‘stuck in a chimney,’ for something truly bizarre.
There are other landlocked songs like the elegiac Cities, which has a lovely guitar riff and, dare I say it, with the fiddle and harmonica combo, it sounds a little like Lindisfarne, in a really good way. Durdham Down is more whimsical, with lines like, “The first time I saw you, you were flying a kite, as the warm red of evening bled into the night,” and features a gorgeous lead from Ellie. The title refers to their Bristol origins and the common up beyond the suspension bridge. There’s further reference to the South West, this time coastal, in Budleigh-O, another delightful melody, playful with just a hint of sweet sorrow amidst the dancing, rolling in the dunes and once more the notion setting sail for more exotic climes.
Perhaps the most landlocked of all are The Well, Stone and Trenches. All are ominous in their own way, the first with its failing crops as an allegory for a fading love. Lines like, “Love won’t die in a fire or fight, it leaves you silently in the night,” set up a beatific instrumental mid section, that once again harbours a delicious melancholy. There’s some more excellent guitar playing that sets up the clever word play of Stone, which again finds love a capricious emotion, as Ellie and Arran sing in sweet harmony. Trenches then throws us into the mud and mayhem of WWI, or some other nameless conflagration, and has an urgency, that suddenly drops away in the most threatening and dramatic way, before a stirring a cappella finalé.
There are two further tracks, with Murmuration turning it’s gaze up to the sky and the scourge of starlings, murder of crows, magpies, nightingales and wise owls. It’s another musically complex piece that shows the strength and the fine blend of instrumental skills, which are every bit as good as the vocal arrangements. Lastly to emphasise the point, albeit somewhat obliquely, is the brief Lleweht, a short, somewhat psychedelic interlude that naturally slips between the frolics of Jean-Michel and Ghosts.
This is a great record that pulls off that magic trick of creating its own world, water, earth and sky and all. It mixes a certain playful, English whimsy, with a willingness to chart the waves of choppy emotional waters in search of the treasures found in tall tales and hearts cast adrift. In all, the CD is handsomely dressed, beautifully recorded and utterly compelling, offering music and storytelling as old as Neptune’s beard and as new as the rock pools exposed by today’s retreating tide. So, splice the mainbrace, set the sails and weigh anchor for the Seven Tides.
Review by: Simon Holland
07 Dec – Folk Off Ebola! – Charity fundraiser @ Jamboree Venue in Limehouse
21 Dec – Official Album Launch Party @ The Harrison Pub in Kings Cross