While waiting to hear the result of the False Lights‘ best album nomination in the BBC Folk Awards next month, Sam Carter already has reason to be pleased with himself. Following on from that highly acclaimed collaboration with Jim Moray last year, Sam’s third solo album How the City Sings is due for release on 8th April, and it’s a clear indication that his musical career is going from strength to strength.
Mentored by the likes of Nitin Sawhney, Martin Simpson and Bellowhead, Sam’s debut album Keepsakes in August 2009 encouraged comparisons to, among others, Roy Harper and Richard Thompson. The 2012 follow-up, No Testament, saw an increased folk/rock influence that was paired with a fascination for American spiritual and gospel music.
But I knew none of this when How the City Sings arrived in my Inbox. Like so many talented artists out there, Sam Carter was a name I’d heard, I knew I liked his approach, but never had the chance to explore his music in detail. Playing the album for the first time, I soon became aware that I’d been missing something rather special. The album opens with a gentle acoustic anthem, From the South Bank to Soho, in which Sam’s voice and expertly picked acoustic guitar are joined by Sam Sweeney’s gently emboldened viola. It’s a warming arrangement that immediately embraces the senses. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, but it barely begins to hint at the wonders that will unfold.
There’s no time to put your feet up, though, as the diverse nature of Sam’s song writing becomes apparent. There couldn’t be a greater contrast to the album’s opening than the blistering menace threatened by Dark Days, as it stomps from the speakers like a circus amid a manic jangle of marxophone and electric guitar. Contrast, however, is a major feature of How the City Sings, and not simply in the differing structure of the songs, in the whole approach to recording them.
The quiet intimacy of Our Kind of Harmony, a beautiful love song that Martin Simpson would have been proud of, harbours the notion of music as a metaphor for love. Although nothing new, the message is none the less delivered as something original and enchanting; with Sam Sweeney’s fiddle a joyful crown. The bittersweet King For a Day presents a sultry, sleepy guitar and piano with a soft as silk vocal. Both of these typify the warm glow that permeates Sam’s love songs.
Diversity abounds, though. Just in case we’d forgotten, or as in my case were unaware of, Sam’s winning way with a gritty guitar; Drop The Bomb mushrooms from its soft piano opening to an astringent submission to the inevitable. The belligerent resignation of Sam’s vocal and his crashing guitar, backed up by the perfectly targeted rock rhythm section of Matt Ridley’s bass and Evan Jenkins’ drums, with a siren wail from Neil Cowley’s keyboards explodes onto the senses. Similarly, the angry Taunting the Dog flaunts the quartet’s rock credentials.
The technical pairing of Dom Monks as sound engineer and keyboard supremo Neil Cowley as co-producer has proved a uniquely invigorating influence. Drummer Evan Jenkins is a Neil Cowley trio regular, and he brings percussion with an impeccable jazz/rock pedigree that combines with Matt Ridley’s bass to provide a rhythm section with a quite astonishing prescience.
Those more benign songs are always there to soothe the soul. It’s in these that Sam Sweeney’s viola, violin and generally mellifluous influences make themselves known. Neil’s jazz background exerts its melodic influence too, though. The happy regrets of We Never Made It to the Lakes tumbles along beautifully and it’s here, as Sam Sweeney’s strings soar, that the Rufus Wainwright similarities finally clicked. The cheerful, quirky One Last Clue packs a playful punch with an immediate and arresting appeal.
The fondness Sam displayed in No Testament for songs with a devotional air also finds its place. There’s an anthemic, choral vocal among the crashing guitar of The Grieved Soul, and in closing the album, the gentle voice and piano combination of How the City Sings presents a reverential celebration of London’s more quiet moments.
Even on first listen it’s clear the album was inspired by life in London, and Sam’s relationship with the City seems to be as tumultuous as any love affair. Drawing comparisons with Keepsakes and No Testament, though, we can see that just as his home has held sway over his song writing for the album, that personal attachment has encouraged a deeper understanding of his own aspirations as a writer and performer. A maturing of Sam’s vocal shows a stronger attachment to his folk influences, and an increased confidence during the more intimate periods. In contrast; when required, the sharpness of his lyrics are endowed with an even keener edge that can range from parody to rage. How the City Sings presents a perfectly balanced blend of soft acoustics, upbeat rhythms and fiery rock. There’s no startling polarity, just a healthy and instantly appealing eclecticism that allows us to enjoy the wide spectrum of Sam Carter’s craft on one wonderfully engaging release.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
As The Morning Mumbles • The Making Of ‘How The City Sings’
How The City Sings is released on 8th April on Captain Records
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