The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, a ‘creative hub in the heart of London’ has a split personality. On the outside, its Victorian façade (the site was a hospital from the early nineteen-twenties but Endell Street dates to the 1840s) and sympathetically modern glass additions suggest it houses a contemporary restaurant full of concrete and smug sommeliers who know you know nothing about wine. Inside it resembles an up-market set of Regus rooms for hire connected over several floors by silver lifts with joke capacity ratings – ‘holds up to 800KG or half a baby elephant’ – you get the picture. It’s not perhaps the first place you’d expect to visit to see a folk band. Regardless, one of those rooms hosts the launch for Stornoway’s third album, Bonxie, the Shetland name for the large seabird known as the Great Skua. Educational, huh?
Stornoway found success with their 2010 4AD debut Beachcombers Windowsill, the album’s fresh take on pop and folk reaching the top 20. Fans had to wait three years for 2013s follow-up Tales From Terra Firma and a year less for Bonxie, which has been funded via Pledge Music and is due for release on April 13. The room is hung with origami birds mirroring the album’s theme and when Stornoway appear on stage, the room is packed.
As you would expect, the majority of songs are from Bonxie. Despite a worryingly booming low-end sound, Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea rides on a tidal double bass and comes to life with the introduction of drums two-thirds of the way in. It’s cleverly arranged, as will be most of the songs from the new album. First single The Road You Didn’t Take adds muted trumpet to a rolling melody and full band harmonies, the last a particular highlight of the set. Birds and bird imagery feature heavily throughout and third song Lost Youth is introduced with ornithological tales of Snipe and Red Grouse, the band living the brand on a breathless acoustic strum with a harmony breakdown and clever lines – ‘We don’t know where we stand / But we do know what we stand for’.
The first two songs are welcomed like old friends, but aside from the odd moment nothing has jumped out at me. Lost Youth, however, is the first of five in a row that exceed expectations. Man On Wire is a lazy beat with busy double bass (still booming, unfortunately) and a punchy chorus. Get Low, second single and here played unplugged, is absolutely superb. It’s an absolute belter that brings to mind the easy rhythmic pull of 70s FM radio hits, albeit with a distinctly English flavour. The a-capella finish is quite brilliant. If it’s not a hit, I’ll eat my notepad – it’s received with huge cheers. Josephine, also unplugged builds on a sea-shanty arrangement and incorporates shimmering 12-string guitar.
The room is on fire now, unusual for a launch in these surroundings where you suspect the majority of the crowd will be industry insiders or critics. Sing With Our Senses adopts slide on an acoustic and electric bass (still boo.. ah, done that); ‘We go down to the sea and we lower our defences / And we sigh with relief..’ When We’re Feeling Gentle errs a little too close to Travis territory but Stornoway recover for the album closer Love Song Of The Beta Male. The crowd is dragooned into assisting with an alternative click / handclap rhythm under lyrics that poke fun at the male of the species.
The songs on Bonxie show a marked progression from the first two albums; more inventive, more confident and rounded, as are the band onstage. They already feel comfortable in the skin of these songs and given half a chance, Bonxie could fly. Sorry.
Review by: Paul Woodgate