Building on both their formidable live reputation and three previous, critically-acclaimed records, Rag Foundation seem poised to step into the bright lights of commercial success with their new album, The Sparrow and The Thief. But scratch the surface of Gavin Monaghan’s high-gloss production and the band’s roots in traditional folk with a good ear for a sweet harmony are clear, and it’s this combination of ingredients which makes the album such a compelling listen.
The album gets off to a good start with ‘First Day of September’, restless percussion holding down the rhythm over which Neil and Kate’s harmonies frame an anticipatory lyric. The interlocking fingerstyle acoustic guitar and windblown fiddle work well together; the coda evokes Ronnie Wood’s guitar playing on ‘Mandolin Wind’, and sees the song out in style.
The second track, ‘Keep the Lights Low’, is also the second single from the album; its accompanying video uses some clever kaleidoscopic effects which suit the song well (video below). It’s a driving, uptempo slice of contemporary folk-rock powered by Huw’s shuffling percussion and Richard’s solid guitar with some nice call-and-response vocal interplay between Kate and Neil while a lively fiddle adds a smile.
‘Your Hands’ drops the tempo for an atmospheric slow-burner with a distinctly menacing feel. Neil’s voice leads with some sharp-edged harmonies from Kate, interspersed with some equally razor-like fiddle over a rhythm guitar/bass combination which sounds like it’s marched out of the mists of a primeval swamp and is looking at you as if contemplating how best to prepare you for its next meal. It’s a real stomper and a highlight of the album.
The soaring harmonies of the radio-friendly ‘Rest the Birds’ are another highlight, particularly on the a capella drop in the middle eight. Kate’s banjo playing shines throughout, adding a flavour of Americana to a very slick contemporary folk tune. The avian theme continues into ‘Sparrow Song’, a gentle and introspective yearning for better days, its sweet multi-layered chorus making the ideal setting for Kate’s swooping voice.
In addition to being the third bird-themed lyric, ‘Beneath a Bone and Iron Sky’ – what a great title! – has a suitably airy feel about its almost traditional folk sensibilities. The effect is sweetened by a touch of psychedelic revival in the sound; Neil’s voice, in particular, calls to mind vintage, pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd.
The potential crowd-pleaser that is ‘Freedom is a Stranger’ opens with unaccompanied vocals over Huw’s kick drum before breaking into a fast country/bluegrass song with tight vocal harmonies and some impressively intricate playing on both fiddle and guitar over some quite complex changes while Daniel’s steady rolling bass holds down the bottom end with a minimum of fuss.
The solid four-square rhythm of ‘Bitter is the Night’ simmers things down a little for an impassioned lyric about love gone bad, with some lovely harmonies and an emotive fiddle providing light and shade.
‘Ship of Fools’ is a gentle acoustic ballad which quietens things down before the penultimate track ‘Run’ picks it all up again. A drive-time classic in the making with a very hooky chorus and a well-constructed middle eight with soaring fiddle over an insistent chiming guitar, it’s easy to see why the band chose it as the first single from the album.
The album rounds down with the cinematic ‘Beloved’, an anguished violin circles around a moody guitar, heavy with tremolo and reverb. Huw and Daniel keep the rhythm moving steadily onwards with Kate’s distant, wordless harmonies making a heartachingly sweet counterpoint to Neil’s almost spoken lead vocal, it sounds both self-assured and vulnerable at the same time and brings the album to a satisfying conclusion.
The Sparrow and The Thief is a solid and enjoyable record, which benefits from a high standard of production values without the band losing sight of the reasons why they make music in the first place. It’s a difficult balancing act at the best of times but Rag Foundation pull it off with aplomb; the result is an album which is instantly accessible but with enough maturity and depth to bring out new aspects on repeated listening.
Review by: Helen Gregory
The Sparrow & The Thief is released 29th June 2015 via Rhondda Street Studio Recordings.