When someone of the calibre of Boo Hewerdine is amongst those singing your praises and even choosing to include one of your songs in his own live set, you know you’re probably onto something very good indeed. So it is with Dark Green Tree, who easily draw comparisons with classic Americana sounds of the 70s and perhaps even more so with the second half of the 80s, as the Paisley Underground boiled over with effortlessly cool bands, fuelled by chiming guitars and winsome, hook-filled melodies. Secret Lives, proves to be a time travelling miracle and a blur of decades’ worth of tunefulness, which belongs, forever existentially, in the here and now, as the songs of Ross Cockburn and Jay Brown stake their claims to classic status. Perfectly formed around the core trio of the band, with Cera Impala adding her voice and banjo to the mix of Jay’s vocal and Ross’ guitar, they’ve taking in some expert help from Boo, Mattie Foulds and some talented extras, resulting in a timeless aesthetic of stunning song-craft, all brilliantly realised and beautifully played.
No matter what we wish for and how we wish it, there are times when the path that leads to our desired destiny is beset by obstacles, blockages of varying degrees of difficulty to overcome. We’ve all been there and sometimes it seems there is no alternative but to turn round and start again, perhaps even chart a different course to a different place. Anyone who finds themselves on the verge of turning tail, could do worse than spend a few minutes talking with Ross Cockburn. Not only is he an easy man to have a very long conversation with, to the point that an hour went by in a blink, but he has a story to tell of hitting a wall and feeling his ship was on the other side, already under sail. Not quite ready to give up, however, a couple of meetings proved enough to set the dominos tumbling with enough velocity to punch a hole though the blockage and set him back on track.
The seed that has become Dark Green Tree was planted at a songwriting workshop run by Boo Hewerdine in Glenfarg. For Ross Cockburn it proved to one of the most inspiring and ultimately productive retreats he had attended, as he came away a man with a mission. Nurturing the germ of that seed and retaining a friendship forged at the sessions, it would take Ross a little while to get his project to take root, but eventually a gig at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms reintroduced him to singer, guitarist Jay Brown who was opening that night for Ben Bedford. Finally making good on a long-floating notion to work together, the pair sat down and in no time had a couple of songs worked out. Feeling energised Ross suggested a trip down to Cambridge to see Boo, who was at once amenable and then subsequently mightily impressed. Offering a steer here and a contribution there, the fertile groundwork was laid. By the end of the weekend as Ross and Jay hit the road back home to Edinburgh, all three knew they had a record to make.
It all started with Ross and Jay, two acoustic guitars and one voice heading for Mattie Foulds’ studio in the borders. Boo joined them and before long was making suggestions about adding bass to one song, enter Ross’ good friend Mike McCann, but then all agreed if it’s on one it should run through the others too. Then one morning the guys returned to the studio to find Mattie a little sheepishly saying, “I hope you don’t mind but I’ve added drums to Yearn for Love.” They listened back and not only didn’t mind, but were frankly gobsmacked as Mattie had managed to following their guitar and bass parts, with their naturally tempo variance and nail it. As Ross explains, “I’ve played with Dick Gaughan and the one thing he said to me that really stands out is that a record is all about the feel. Not just what it makes you feel, but the feel the musicians get in the studio. And that’s 100% spot on. We couldn’t believe what Mattie had done, it was incredible.”
Whilst they also invited a couple of extra guitarists, Jed Potts and Colin MacFarlane to add extra layers including Dobro and lap steel, while Boo introduced John McCusker’s violin, with Pete Harvey adding cello and both Stevie Christie and Lewis Rumney adding the occasional keys, the most significant extra piece of the jigsaw was bringing in Cera Impala. As Ross explains, “I could always hear this tight female harmony and although Cera is one of the hardest working women in music, when she agreed to be part of this, it changed it all dramatically. Originally she was just going to sing harmony on a couple of songs, but it just worked so well. Now we’ve started playing live she sings on everything.” He pauses and offers, “It’s like I’ve ended up in a band with my two favourite singers working the vocals together, it’s brilliant.”
Brilliant it is, although it’s Jay’s keening tones a little reminiscent of Neil Young that feature prominently on the opening Yearn For Love. There’s a wonderful layering of the guitars too, with dense acoustic strumming and hooky riffs, like Automatic era R.E.M, creating a softly enveloping sound as Jay sings, “Green fields of home, Burn in my dreams, Soft fiery glow, Ripped at the seams.” Then the organ arrives swelling the song almost to bursting point and Jay sounds almost desolate as he sings, “Don’t leave me here just holding on, You know I’m not the only one, To Yearn for love.”
Rolling Wind bubbles brightly to life with Cera’s banjo added to the mix with just a hint of floaty lap steel. Jay and Cera’s voices do work wonderfully together, both are hushed with Jay sounding slightly tremulous, while Cera is somewhere between a purr and whisper. The sentiments seem once more forlorn as the fires of love are dimmed and the wind just blows through the ashes, although perhaps will finally blow cares away. There are a couple of truly beautiful instrumental breaks, with John McCusker’s fiddle joining the weeping steel guitar to heartrending effect.
The percussion is reduced to the most subtle of shakers for Skin And Bone, but the strong acoustic guitar riff means that you hardly notice, while again the lap steel, and what sounds like some whistle from McCusker, add to the continuing, rising, ethereal quality that permeates these songs. The cello adds an extra anchor at the bottom end to stop things getting too light headed, although the sense of a troubled heart at work takes an upward turn for the cosmic as Jay sings, “And the stars that shone above us, We’re all spinning there alone, Like we were only skin and bone, we’re only skin and bone.”
One of two covers is next with a brooding version of The Frames Lay Me Down, with some excellent Dobro work from Colin MacFarlane. Ross explains that he and Jay were drawn towards adding a couple of non-originals and seeing if they could give them the Dark Green Tree makeover. Each picked one and this is Ross’ choice. It’s quite faithful, including the unusual drum pattern, but gets a subtle lift from the duet between Jay and Cera, while MacFarlane and McCusker add a delicious exoticism, that the Irish band’s version hints at.
Heart Of Winter is almost minimalist, with a simple repeated guitar figure and the two voices although there are subtle atmospherics attached that build through the song as the banjo, cello and then violin play their parts. Once more the lyrics suggest that love is a quest with, “For to her I owe my heart, Seek for her I ever will, Like the birds in snow depart, To return in summer.” Again there’s no drum track, but the combination of the bass and chiming guitar keep the rhythmic pulse strong and tether the floating instrumentation to the melody.
The second of those cover versions follows, although Ryan Adams When The Stars Go Blue was the first to be recorded. It’s brilliantly done too and in the hands and voices of Dark Green Tree fits seamlessly into their exquisite, acoustic dream-pop, to that extent that unless you know the original you might not even realise. Significantly, to theses ears at least, it’s not the best song on offer either.
That honour might easily fall to the title track, although it is currently in a state of flux as the more plays the CD gets, the harder it becomes to choose. Again the gentle strength of the duet between Jay and Cera is significant as they sing, “My secret life, the one you don’t know, When you’re not around there is somewhere I go The hours that I spend, and time on my own, There’s nobody here but I don’t feel alone.” McCusker’s fiddle also plays its part. It also leads off Sarah, which has something of an outlaw-country ballad about it. It’s unclear whether this is a real robbery or just a crime of the heart in the guilty confession, “I always return to the scene of the crime, my prints are all over the place And I’m always first to get picked in the line, I guess I’ve got a photo-fit face.”
The penultimate track, Light The Fire is another hazy dream that brings us home as Jay sings, “You found your loneliness and I missed those scenes, But I move like the driven snow, Light the fire, I’ll be home soon.” Again the cello and breathy backing vocals combine with bright guitar arpeggios and little hints of Dobro and/or lap steel to create a blissfully smooth ride.
The segue of wind in the trees and ambient bird call brings the great outdoors into the final track One Fine Day. It’s actually the first song that Ross and Jay wrote together and so, you could say, set the template. Again, there’s an emotional weight to the words as Jay sings, “By the river where once I loved her, Where once the light fell, And once the leaves turned, And nights were open, And nights were blinding, And time was frozen,” with Cera joining on the first chorus through to the end. Its steady waltz time is accented by the pizzicato violin, although it’s also bowed to add to the impassioned churning and sense of longing, with perhaps just a hint of peace of mind at the end of the song.
It’ worth noting that the record has been mixed by Jon Kelly, a man with a mightily impressive CV who has contributed along with Mattie and Boo, to captain and creating the shimmering layers of sound that set these songs apart. As for the songs themselves, Ross reckons he’s finally found both his writing partner and the sound he was searching for as he told me that, “We know exactly what a Dark Green Tree song is.” He takes it further adding, “Dark Green Tree is like the third person in the room when we write and the one that needs to be satisfied.” Well that third person must feel very pleased with Secret Lives, a record that fulfils a dream and sets in motion whole new flights of fantasy and imagination of its own, wrapped up in a set of blissful tunes and honeyed harmony. Ross also lets me know that he’s saving up as many tree and forest metaphors as he can and I guess one is that from little seeds, mighty trees grow… And Dark Green Tree are mighty, mighty alright!
Review by: Simon Holland
21/06 – Edinburgh, Voodoo Rooms
05/07 – Fairlie, Kelburn Garden Party
07/08 – Inverness, Belladrum Festival
08/08 – Cambridge, Cambridge Folk Club
Visit them here: http://www.darkgreentree.com/