Despite their Foundry Studio base in Sheffield, The Grenaways decided to record as much as possible of their debut, full length album in their native south west. It made perfect sense as the band call upon the rich traditions of Cornwall where life and people have always been influenced so much by the sea and coastal living, with that particular worldview percolating through their music, bubbling up in nautical references throughout Be Still Young Heart. But the Grenaways are a band set for far wider horizons than just Cornwall and with a big sound billowing their musical sails, this is the record that is fair set to take them to the widespread national audience they richly deserve.
The band coalesced around the Tube Station in Polzeath a café perched above the beach that serves the local community and surfers alike, adding a spiritual dimension, whilst retaining an open door and all comers philosophy. As Kris Lannen, one of the two lead voices and songwriters, explains to me, “The drummer, Henry Cavender and I had been in a surf rock band, which we were really keen to make work, but it ran out of steam.” Looking for a new musical challenge the pair started to bond with various people in and around the café. In the case of Isabelle Roberts, the band’s violinist, the introduction was made by Kris’ wife as the two are also both local artists who already knew each other through their work.
The line up took shape a couple of years ago and immediately embarked on writing their own material, eschewing the idea of joining the local, cover-band pub circuit. Kris has since shared the songwriting duties with Laura Garcia, the band’s other lead voice, flautist and keyboard player, who was one of the first to sign up to the new cause. Laura is the one member of the band who grew up listening to folk, although her brother Tom Fosten plays bass. Joff Phipps is the lead guitarist on the album while Paddy Purnell (double bass) and Claude Lamon (trumpet) have also been recruited to the ranks. The Grenaways will essentially function as a collective with different line up combinations, up to seven strong, to fit their needs. The coming tour sees them strip back, so Tom has converted to lead guitar and, Joff will take a back seat, resuming his role for bigger dates the band have planned.
When it came to the recording, their pals, Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, suggested the St. James Church in St. Kew. It was duly hired out and the equipment ferried in. Kris reveals, “The people who were recording us got really excited by the acoustic and the big natural reverb, while we got really excited about being able to play as a live band. Although we did some overdubs later in the studio, we were able to watch each other while we recorded the basic tracks. In all honesty the studio setting was much more efficient, because everything was to hand and in it’s familiar place, but the church sessions had their own special atmosphere, especially when we worked late into the night.” The sonic benefits are also apparent and it’s easy to hear what excited the engineers, as there is something quite unique that has been captured.
There’s a great energy to the record as well, even after the gentle lull of an introduction with running water, birdsong and a nylon strung guitar figure that sets Son Of Dust in motion. As the voices join together, there’s a surge from acoustic guitars as the violin cuts across the rhythm creating a musical undertow and the skittering drums add an urgency, whilst the bass line, slow and steady, stretches the rhythmic timing.
Kris’ voice is an instant hit, but it took me several plays grasping at elusive familiarity before Mark Mulcahy’s name popped to the front of the queue. It’s far from a perfect match, as Kris has a marked tremolo and an obvious passion that make the erstwhile Miracle Legion man sound positively deadpan, so perhaps it’s something else from the era that is still lurking in the memory banks, but it’s funny how a feeling grabs you. Grabbed I was nonetheless and as it transpired, once in The Grenaways’ embrace I was quite content to stay there for the ride.
Melodically the whole album is very strong indeed, but there’s an elusive quality in the lyrics too. They are for the large part impressionistic rather than telling specific stories, creating modes and feelings rather that painting portraits. But then there are little details like, “I let you take my hand slightly longer than I should,” which Laura sings at the start of Lost. She has a clear strong voice and she and Kris combine wonderfully throughout. They get a little support where needed from drummer Henry too, and the three part harmonies are part of the big full sound, although Isabelle’s violin and the inventive drum work are also important elements in the mix.
Those latter two certainly make a telling contribution to Am I Jonah? which is also the first song to obviously feature the electric guitar of Joff Phips. The bass is also busier to match the pattering and rumbling as Henry makes full use of his kit, set up a storm tossed mid section as Kris repeats, “Should I be thrown over the side.” The drama continues into the intro of Laura’s Not My Heart, but as she again takes the lead she calms the tumult. Not for the first time I’m marvelling at the song which seems to float on top of the instruments, but then the whole thing picks up a huge swelling harmony laden coda.
If anything there is a questing a questioning and a searching and all the while the hope of redemption, peacefulness and harmony sit in these songs. Pura Vida, however, has a nagging intensity built by a circling riff that acts as a platform for the trumpet to make its debut, adding a Latin tinge and combining with some gorgeous flute. Again the percussive drive is powerful and the kick drum in particular seems to have picked up a little extra ballast. Again that intensity carries through into Misunderstood Enigma carried through by some superb violin as once more the electric guitar is brought into play and another insistent riff builds and builds, finding outlet through a soaring trumpet solo that pushes us to an epic climax and final sigh in the breakdown.
Port Isaac has another of those little details in the line, “You wore a checked shirt, she wore green.” It’s also different in starting off with piano chords that set a slower pace. Once more Isabelle’s violin and the electric guitar weave and wind around Kris’ emotive voice, as always supported with fine harmonies form Laura. The following Standing is quite restrained at first, but again it builds into a powerful and passionate piece that offers hints of the rapture of The Waterboys in their pomp. It makes Day After Day sound somewhat bucolic and calming, the wistful flute offering a sense of bucolic ease.
There are further contrasts in the last two songs, with Brother returning to a tightly coiled sound and finally the expansive title track. The latter in particular demonstrates The Grenaways capacity for maximising the impact of a phrase as the title, Be Still Young Heart is repeated over and over, as the music does the opposite of quieting down, going into overdrive, quite literally with fuzz-tones and feedback, all the time marshalled by Henry’s circling drum tattoo. It’s a fine way to sign off and leave a lasting impression.
Of course it’s not just the sea that Cornwall is known for and the county once boasted a strong mining heritage that goes all of the way back to the Bronze Age. The south west tip of England has also been a lure for artists and creative sorts, inspired by the rugged beauty and comparative tranquillity, which naturally comes with being at the end of the line. Metaphorically as well as keeping close to the elements of salt air and sea spray, The Grenaways could be said to be mining the rich veins of inspirational ore that course through their home turf, adding a sense of their own ties to the region and especially it’s Celtic heritage. Be Still Young Heart is a record that brims with a spirituality, but one that has more in keeping with Gaelic language songs, filled with passion, feeling and suggestion, rather than offering a moral A-Z roadmap of how to live your life.
Most importantly, however, The Grenaways collective decision to write their own songs has brought the best out of what is clearly a highly talented collective. Whether it’s the location or simply the skill of the engineers, there’s something about the sound too, capturing some superb playing with a seamless quality. It’s a big sound to match the big hearted passionate delivery of The Grenaways, especially Kris and Laura, whose vocals are superb throughout, Be Still Young Heart should by rights be a big, big record.
Review by: Simon Holland
Be Still Young Heart is Out Now