Having enjoyed Top 30 success with 2013’s sophomore album, Tales From Terra Firma, the Oxford quartet Stornoway weren’t about to burn the blueprints for the follow up, their first for Cooking Vinyl. As such, once again there’s a strong indie pop sensibility informing the accessible, highly melodic tracks on Bonxie, though it’s less eclectic than its predecessor, which embraced space rock, samba and Dixieland jazz. Instead there is more of a direct connection with the summery, folksy roots of the debut, not least in rekindling their love affair with the shanty.
It’s the first time they’ve worked with an outside producer and they’ve jumped in at the deep end by enlisting Gil Norton, a man who’s twiddled knobs for the Foo Fighters, James and Pixies on his CV and, as such, there’s a real sense of muscularity and power that well befits an album named after the Great Skua, a massive Hebridean seabird not known for being a winged wuss.
The avian connection extends beyond the title with some 20 different species of birds contributing their calls to the album (singer Brian Briggs is, after all, also a Dr. of Ornithology), opening with that of Brent geese mingling with the pump organ-like drone that heralds the aptly named (very electronic based) Between The Saltmarsh and the Sea, a swellingly jubilant love song with an almost hymnal air as Briggs sings ‘you wash my hair and you feed my horses…. You build me up and you make me beautiful’, though his desire to be more connected with the outdoors suggests this may be more about nature than any woman.
Influenced by Grandaddy and inspired by his time spent doing conservation work on Chesil beach (viz a reference to single shoes washed up along the shingle), the infectiously poppy, Get Low with its ‘keep dreaming’ refrain also has that wide open spaces feel although things then move to the heart of the city with Man On Wire which, opening with the sounds of Manhattan, is a slow groove, upbeat, strings-washed song written by multi-instrumentalist Jon Ouin, inspired lyrically by Phillipe Petit’s highwire walk between the twin towers and musically by McAlmont & Butler.
Walking in the footsteps of Farewell Appalachia, the mood shifts with The Road You Didn’t Take, the first of the shanty touches evident in its swaying chorus as shimmering acoustic guitar, keys and strings create the wash over which Briggs, his vocals multi-tracked and soaring on the opening of each verse sings of the sublime (in the Romantics sense) quality of nature (references to sleeping on mountains and in the open by the sea) and of not being closed to the experience.
Lost Youth, which sports the memorable line “we don’t know where we stand but we think we know what we stand”, is a skittering little lounge number with a wheezing keyboard turkey gobble clucks (and assorted bird calls) before we head into tremolo guitar country for the billowing Sing With Our Senses, a veritable band manifesto that sounds as though it should be played atop windy peaks as the horizon stretches out for miles.
Being honest, the reflective, acoustic strummed, gradually swelling ballad We Were Giants is a bit of a stop gap that doesn’t quite get inside you, but then comes the glorious bubbling, tumbling synth sweeping motorik pop of When You’re Feeling Gentle with its joyously infectious chorus. The album then gears up to head out in style, starting with the epic Heart Of The Great Alone, another swirling synth dominated affair that touches on the sublime and was inspired by an Edinburgh exhibition of Herbert Ponting’s photos of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole 100 years ago, the lyrics from the perspective of one of Briggs’ neighbours on the Gower and assorted kitchen utensils called into service for the sound.
Then it’s my personal favourite, a full on swayalong shanty outing with Josephine, Briggs starting it off a capella before acoustic guitar picks up the waltz and close harmonies carry the title refrain and chorus in a manner that conjures barber shop quartets and classic English vaudeville.
Nodding to 60s pop balladry and doo wop days, Love Song of the Beta Male sees things out in style with a cascading melody line, soaring trumpet and, reminding you of past comparisons to Prebab Sprout, a lovely lyric about being a gauche romantic who may have two left feet, but can still “write sentimental songs about the way you make me feel inside …and I will hold you tight and tell you everything will be all right.” As the song fades away, the last thing you hear is chirping birdsong, which seems most appropriate for an album you’ll most assuredly want to feather your nest.
Review by: Mike Davies
They take the bird theme further on their latest official video for Get Low which was inspired by David Attenborough’s footage of ‘imprinted’ Greylag geese, flying low along side the broadcaster and naturalist. It features the same Geese imprinted by Rose Buck. She and her husband Lloyd, are bird handlers who work with natural history film makers to provide birds for film sequences who are trained but still exhibit all their natural and wild behaviours.
out on 13th April via Cooking Vinyl