Karl Culley’s fourth offering is, as the name suggests, a stripped-down affair but his clever, intricate guitar picking creates the illusion that there is more than simply the singer and his guitar. Stripling follows on from the 2013 album Phosphor. It’s a collection of songs which analyse in various ways different aspects of the human experience with a craftmanship that Culley has developed in his own unique way.
Currently based in Krakow but originally from the north of England, Culley has earned rave reviews mainly because of his phenomenal guitar playing but his voice is often unfairly overlooked. With this album, it comes more to the fore as does his clever storytelling and lyrics.
Semi-Precious opens the album, a gentle, rather introspective song which appears to be about the passing on of something special from father to son ‘To you these stones I entrust’ but there is the strong sense of something more than just material possessions. Come Over to Me is typical of Karl’s wonderful playing. A jangly, lively display of fingerpicking with a calm vocal on top. Lyrically we get the sense of a someone who is tempting someone innocent but are the intentions pure or sinister? It seems to be a case of someone devilish teasing the tempted.
‘All we need is people’ sings Culley in School Of The Heart, an optimistic song suggesting that we can all find solace and understanding in the company of others. Culley is in playful mode in If We Were Free and ‘three girls lurch into a church / they have just begun their search’. You get the sense of freedom as an aspiration but knowing what to do with it is the challenge.
Infinity Pool is one of my favourites on this album. ‘Come join me in the infinity pool’ sings Culley. ‘Can we say where we’re from?’ is the question as the singer tackles the human existential question. ‘I just love’ is one way of dealing with the mystery we face every day. Whey-Faced Phantoms seems to tell the story of loss ‘down in the water’. What or who that loss is is hard to know but here the playing is intense and the vocals are earnest.
The final song on the album is Memory’s Like A Hunting Hawk. An intriguing title as is the opening line – ‘My memory is out for blood’. There is the strong sense of something lost that the singer would greatly like to retrieve.
Stripling is an album for those who appreciate good songwriting in the folk tradition with a distinctive twist that Culley makes his own. Without any special production or accompaniment, this can be appreciated and enjoyed on this record.
Review by: Philip Soanes
Released April 27th 2015 via Sound of Jura