For the third in his ambitious project to release five albums in as many years, the increasingly prolific Gren Bartley has recruited a percussionist and a pair of string players (who also provide vocal harmonies) to form a band line-up that has been captivating live audiences across the UK. His earlier albums, the well-received Songs to Scythe Back the Overgrown and the successful Winter Fires documented Gren’s exploration of English and American folk, along with traditions from other cultures around the world.
Magnificent Creatures finds Gren collaborating with producer Gavin Monaghan, whose background lies in indie and rock music. Gavin and his Wolverhampton-based studio the Magic Garden have been well known around the Midlands for over 20 years, with his production skills enhancing recordings from the early days of local acts Carina Round and Broadcast to Editors’ debut album and first few hit singles, on to the likes of Robert Plant, Ryan Adams, Nizlopi and Paolo Nutini.
Gavin’s contemporary approach is apparent from the start, with a colourful, expansive sound that brings the instrumentation to life and fills the speakers. Tall Wooden Walls follows a pair of lovers into a forest where they have gone to be alone as they dream of poppies and nightingales. Gren’s trademark skilfully finger-picked guitar floats around with cello, piano, accordion and Jim Sutton’s particularly memorable melodic bassline, while crashing cymbals suggest the mighty majesty of the treetops as they catch the breeze high above the sleeping couple.
In Fair Share, Gren laments the things that he’s missing because of his work – the time to enjoy the sunshine and the silver river that flows outside of his window. Far worse than these though is the plight of the small child who isn’t destined to enjoy the time that she deserves. Gren’s exemplary guitar playing is joined by Julia Disney’s violin and Sarah Smout’s sorrowful cello notes which together with the duo’s backing vocals, give the song an orchestral air. In contrast, the counted in opening of Angels Fade is a more stripped back affair, with just Gren’s guitar and vocal taking the lead on the brief verses but joined for the choruses by strings and beautiful harmonies, until Lydia Glanville’s rolling, military-style snare drum drives the piece to its mournful conclusion.
The name of the album might suggest songs of extraordinary mythological beasts that would be more at home on a progressive rock album adorned by Roger Dean’s cover art. But the creatures referred to in the title are far from the fantastical, as Portland describes of the loss of three ships and the imagined bodies of the dead.
The almost seven-minute epic Nightingale is in several distinct parts, like movements of a miniature symphony. Its first section is loaded with early sixties US pop sensibilities, ably guided by Julia’s piano and Lydia’s drums, while Gren’s lyrics explore unavoidable outward change – aging, perhaps – while inwardly, nothing alters. The piece fades after a couple of minutes into a gently picked, relaxed guitar passage, allowing time to reflect on what has gone before. Gren sings over the guitar, as an American folkdance-like rhythm comes into play and a string arrangement takes over, building in pace and volume until returning to opening melody.
The musical variation between the song styles continues: Of the Girl is a lyrically-sparse slide guitar blues with nice harmonies; Home Soon, the heaviest song here, has some very fine wailing harmonica work from producer Gavin and Laura Hares adds a warm flute to the fragile loveliness of Undone’s guitar, piano and cello.
Gren’s lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent, with themes evolving around human frailty, fear, regret and loss but things start to look a little brighter by the end of This Changes Everything, as he looks towards future optimism: “All that came before means nothing any more/and who knows what tomorrow will bring?” This leads on to the conclusion of Gren’s treatise on the human condition, as the gorgeous but brief a capella Silent Hotel points towards time being a great healer.
Gren Bartley has recorded an absorbing collection of songs awash with poetic lyrical imagery and stunning harmonies. His decision to work with a contemporary producer should broaden the appeal of an album where the magnificent creatures are the songs.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Released 21 September via Fellside
Magnificent Creatures Tour kicks off on October 1st at The Servant Jazz Quarters, London, full tour dates and details can be found here: www.grenbartley.com