Cornwall has forever been an outlier. Geographically, obviously, but also socially, culturally and artistically. Ruthlessly defended by and for its true Cornish blood, the rugged coastline and wild interior breeds hardy folk and ample, tucked-away spaces where inspiration and creativity evolve at their own speed. It’s as far removed from the ‘centre of things’ as it’s possible to get, but has an established reputation for nurturing and attracting musicians of all stripes, particularly those of a roots nature.
Flats and Sharps are the latest such group to reach beyond the border for a bite at a bigger cherry. Kirk Bowman (Banjo), Mikey Ponsford (Mandolin), Josh Warner (Guitar), Liam Fitzharris (Double Bass) and Danny Hart (Fiddle) combine the natural enthusiasm of youth with a healthy work ethic and a desire to marry several roots genres on their debut, King Of My Mind. The band and their second studio offering (first album ‘Proper Job’ was released in 2012) arrive with several ticks in the positive box.
Firstly, if it’s not too shallow (and this is the music business, so we’ll assume it’s not), they all benefit from good genes, a distinct advantage when, and this is by way of the second point, they’ve spent the large part of their late-teens and early twenties gigging remorselessly, to the tune of 350 plus performances. Five likely lads with all the instrumental chops they need and good complexions is a PR dream. Those gigs started out as busking appearances in Penzance but have since climbed several notches on the concert ladder, including slots at the Country–2-Country Festival and Hyde Park Proms. Thirdly, their combination of fast and furious Bluegrass, contemporary Pop, Country and Folk is a heady concoction which could be well placed to take advantage of the rising profile roots music has in the mainstream. Here be lightspeed, Chris Thile-style banjo and mandolin licks, road-honed harmonies and a knowing sensibility for a fast-rising market niche that belies their tender ages and experience. It’s an attractive package in more ways than one.
Thankfully for the listener, King Of My Mind doesn’t disappoint. Over the course of 14 songs, 12 original, producer David McEwan has marshalled the band’s intensity and barely bridled gusto to create a sound that explodes from the speakers like Force–9 spray against a harbour wall. McEwan is best known for Plan B’s Defamation Of Strickland Banks and the clarity and balance of instruments and voice that marked that hugely successful record are much in evidence here too.
Witness the opening brace; ‘My Life’ rocks along on a walking (upright) bass line and clever bridge chords on the banjo that introduce an album where the traditional Appalachia instrumentation is hot-wired and driven off to pastures new. The middle-eight a-capella harmonies are a brief respite from the pace. Following track ‘Boat’ is equally buoyant and even more poppy despite the shanty undertones. Both allow scope for individual members to stamp their solo credentials without harming the flow, a momentum that’s maintained on ‘I Smile’, complete with lines like ‘I’m singing love songs in my head / Scratching your name into my bed’ guaranteed to stick beyond the first listen. I Smile is that rarity on modern records, a successful happy song; it also marks the introduction of emerging singer-songwriter emaé as guest vocalist and additional piano and organ that flesh out the melody.
A cover of Goffin and King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is given the full Bluegrass treatment, albeit with a brief cod-reggae stop-start section through the ‘When the night / meets the morning sun’ lyric. Whether it works or not will largely depend on how au fait an audience is with The Shirelles or Carole King versions, but full credit to them for bringing the Brill Building into 2016 for new listeners to discover.
The album doesn’t take a breath until the slightly foot-off-the-pedal ‘Someday’, which has some of BJ Cole’s typically beautiful pedal steel running through its core like molten gold. Follow-up ‘It’s Okay My Love’ is similarly restrained, its Country leanings reminiscent of Folk Radio favourites Fish & Bird. After the respite, the second half of the album picks up where it started. ‘Caleb Mayer’ is a good old-fashioned story song about hard luck and hard lives. ‘Tieran Kerry’ and ‘Got You On My Mind’ are upbeat songs with an eye for the dance floor and barroom revelry – it’s easy to hear why Flats & Sharps have built their following from their live shows and it’s easy to imagine a full house loving the relentless pace and masterly playing.
It’s always a good sign when some of a band’s strongest cuts are towards the end of a record and this is true of King Of My Mind. Wrapped around ‘Tieran Kenny’ and ‘Got You On My Mind’ are ‘Isabelle’ and ‘Fly’, two reflective tracks that share beautiful melodies and considered fiddle accompaniment from Danny Hart. The former is an album standout, the latter highlights the band’s harmonies nicely.
More than any other, however, ‘The Darkest Shade Of Light’ showcases where this band could go. The penultimate track has a lovely intro and an arrangement that takes all the best parts of what’s gone before and multiplies their impacts. Again, piano is an essential and welcome addition to the instrumentation, and the brakes are applied sufficiently that the song expands into its space with grace and poise. The outro is particularly effective and the song rewards repeat plays. Songwriting maturity of this stature is a clear indication that all those miles on the road are beginning to pay off.
The title track completes an often dizzying experience and neatly summarises their endeavours with its fairground bounce, Hammond B3 and audience noise. King Of My Mind is a Saturday night record, a going out, indulgent, unrestrained binge of an album that frequently delights. Flats & Sharps? Perfectly pitched would be closer to the mark.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Keep an eye on their website for gig dates and festival appearances over 2016…we think it’s going to be a busy year for them!
Visit them here: www.flatsandsharps.co.uk