Old Ink, the fourth album by Little Arrow, finds the West Wales band distilling the grunge-folk of 2014’s Furious Finite into a rootsier, more acoustic sound which is so immense it probably has its own postcode. Featuring songwriting contributions from all five members and informed by themes of loss, history and memory, it takes elements of the familiar and blends them with the band’s own unique and idiosyncratic approach to create something quite unlike anything else around; a “landscape of the moment”, to quote the band’s website. Chief wizard in this audio alchemy is singer and writer William Hughes and while his voice and lyrics are often at the forefront of the recordings on Old Ink, the listener shouldn’t for one moment think that this is a cliched “frontman plus band” deal: more often than not the deepest magic is found in the symbiosis between the arrangements and instrumentation with the vocals.
Throughout the album, William uses his distinctive vocals more as another instrument than as the purveyor of a distinct lyrical message. It’s a fascinating approach and the result is a sort of Cubist Impressionism – Impressionistic Cubism perhaps? – replete with splintered washes of sound, angular daubs of timbral colour and the sense of stories shown not told. It’s a highly iconoclastic approach which the listener quickly grasps is an integral and vital part of Little Arrow’s approach to making music; the unfamiliar made familiar through a process of deconstruction, disorientation and recentring.
This willingness to question preconceptions, to redefine old ways of doing things, is clear from the outset, before you’ve even got as far as the ‘play’ button. The physical packaging takes the form of what the PR notes call a zine, a term which is somehow as apt as it is inappropriate, given the high quality of this limited edition 28-page A5 booklet. Printed on heavyweight art paper, it contains a collection of images created by artists, illustrators, photographers, fans and band members in response to songs and lyrics from the band’s back catalogue. It’s one of the most sensuous, tactile pieces of packaging I’ve seen for a very long time; indeed, it takes me back to the golden olden days of yore when you could lose hours looking at all the detail in the artwork on a vinyl album’s gatefold sleeve. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the accompanying CD, and there’s a good reason why: there isn’t one! What you do get for your money, in addition to a collection of gorgeous artworks, is a download code that allows you to grab the album in its digital form (MP3, FLAC, AAC, Ogg Vorbis or ALAC) from the band’s website and which includes a “bonus item” in the form of a PDF copy of the booklet. At a stroke, the band have managed to cater for anyone who’s ever grumbled about the poor quality of most CD sleeve artwork while delivering their music in the most contemporary way which still allows the listener to burn it to CD, should she so desire. How can you not like a band who thinks things through that comprehensively?!
Opening track ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ exemplifies the band’s musical synergy: while it draws on the all-pervasive influence of Americana, it’s not the usual over-polished trite pastiche that has permeated much of contemporary folk and roots music in recent times. Rather, this is the sound of an Americana which is abraded and weatherbeaten, raw and honest. In the same way that blues music is a sad music that makes you feel good, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ pulls no punches but is generous enough to hand you a tissue for the bloodied nose it’s just given you, before pouring you a stiff shot of best Welsh whisky to revive you.
‘Sun Sky’ rings the changes in no uncertain terms: a rattling, rolling countrified tune interspersed with delicate filaments of fingerstyle acoustic guitar over and around which William’s powerful vocals billow like clouds across the sun. The sleeve notes state, somewhat cryptically, that “Track 2’s Metamorphosis lyric was influenced by Jack Ford”: for once my Google Fu skills have been rendered powerless so I remain unclear as to what that may mean.
‘Worth A Winter’ (jointly written by William Hughes and guitarist Ben Sharpe) is a sparse and angular acoustic tune punctuated by whooshes of cymbal and subliminal ambient noises – the lapping of the tide, the distant sound of surf – before gathering pace towards its ensemble conclusion. Silvery harmonica passing like ships in the night, against a nearer backdrop of a chorus of voices hanging in the cold night air, a sing-song after lock-in at the nearest pub, fuelled by high spirits and, for a moment or two, the blanking out of the inevitable morning after the night before.
The slow country blues of ‘Defining Climbing’ wander across a windblown sandblown landscape to the accompaniment of an occasionally dissonant acoustic lead guitar over a slow and steady acoustic rhythm, world-weary but still willing… In search of that cold beer, ice cold in Pembroke, before (suitably refreshed) kicking everything up a gear into a scuffling shuffling coda where leather-jacketed dudes and jitterbug babes rock’n’roll the neon-lit night away.
Former FRUK Song of the Day ‘Bills’ is a thing of beauty and a particular highlight of the album. Nylon-strung acoustic guitar and William’s wistfully dulcet tones delicately interlace like the veins of Chinese lantern plants, cradling Callum Duggan’s fruity double bass as a cello hovers like a honey bee on the last day of summer, before a beautifully baroque string arrangement brings on the winter of the malcontents.
‘Labours In Making’ is another highlight: a short, sweet, slow motion flurry of fallen leaves in which Dan Messore’s precisely picked ghostly guitar pirouettes with Rich Chitty’s sibilant cymbals. The song swirls like the rising mists around the mound of Arberth as William’s mournful multi-tracked harmonies call like lovesick Pwyll to the distant Rhiannon.
It’s followed by what feels like a triptych of short compositions: ‘Train Worker’ walks the line but this is no lonesome whistling in the dark, no ordinary love in vain. Sharp-edged bursts of acoustic guitar flare like incandescent sparks struck from a sandpapery cello and drums; blue light, red light, flickering polyrhythms bounce against the rise and fall of William’s voice. ‘Hiphopstrumental’ crosses continents, not to the South Bronx but to southern Spain, as a distant, flamenco-infused acoustic guitar struts a Phrygian mode fandango to a deftly descending fingerstyle riff. Meanwhile the country blues of ‘Falling Hills’ turns its gaze to the east, towards the beacons that illuminate the true blue remembered hills as voice and guitar riff in unison over skittery percussion, looking forward to looking back as the years roll by.
The penultimate ‘Again Grow Green’ unfurls like a time-lapse film of snowdrops pushing up through the winter’s thawing ice. Xylophone and fragmented guitar over a heartbeat rhythm, an intimation of a summer to come – maybe not as hot as Hawaii but warm enough to sooth the sorest of throats, honey and lemon for the hoarsest of voices.
The album winds down with ‘Rope’, the sound of the warmth that remains when the candle’s guttering light has succumbed to the darkness. Luminous cello anchors the intertwined acoustic guitar and voice, as the tempo quickens gradually propelled by marching drums. A wordless choir of hope has the last word, raging against the encroaching dark, reminding us there’s no rope as long as time.
At a time when individuality in society comes at a price – the sacrifice of empathy, compassion and basic humanity on the altar of neoliberal austerity – and the fallout from that is a rising tide of ‘safe’, unquestioning and anodyne music, Little Arrow rail against mediocrity with an irresistibly fierce passion. The result is Old Ink, one of the most intoxicatingly original records you’re likely hear this year.
Review by: Helen Gregory