James Green, the head honcho of the Sheffield-based Big Eyes Family Players, has an impressive list of former collaborators. 2009’s Folk Songs saw his collective backing James Yorkston on an impressive set of traditional songs, while its follow-up saw the likes of Alasdair Roberts, Sharron Kraus and Mary Hampton share vocal duties. Their latest offering doesn’t have the heft of all those impressive names. But with a settled songwriting duo of Green and Heather Ditch replacing the amorphous a agglomerate of old the sound has gained a new focus and the songs pack a different kind of punch.
It all kicks off with Pendulum, which takes a similar maximalist approach to the Trembling Bells (but with a more pop-oriented structure), and it comes as no surprise to find that Bells collaborator Aby Vulliamy provides viola and saw throughout the album. Ditch’s vocals give this short song a rapturous, climactic feel but also the kind of hauntological detachment perfected by acts like Broadcast.
In fact, Broadcast remain a touchstone throughout the album, mainly due to Ditch’s psychy, heavily delayed vocals. Coupled with at times simple, almost childlike song structures, as in the languid Across The Waves, and the overall result is akin to the eerie, time-bending stories of Alan Garner or Susan Cooper and the proto-psychedelia of Lewis Carroll. The haunted aspect is continued in Ghosts with its bendy guitar and wailing wall of sound.
One of the most moving moments is Joyce, which tells the sad true story of a Londoner who died alone in her flat and was not discovered for three years. It’s pretty harrowing stuff, both lyrically and musically: strip away the lyrical content and what remains recalls the slower moments of Irish first-wave folk-rockers Mellow Candle. It is followed by the wordless Witchpricker’s Dream, a free-form ice sculpture of a song that sounds like a spooked pagan music box or a hedgerow version of Björk’s instrumental Frosti. A frantic, tricksy drumbeat pervades The Blind Punch, giving way to a short moment of clarity which is soon debased by a finale that would float off into free jazz freakiness were it not for its anchoring guitar line.
The album’s emotional heart can perhaps be most clearly detected in its one cover, Lal Waterson’s Song For Thirza. There is something disarmingly honest and deceptively simple about Waterson’s songs that explains why they are so frequently covered, but despite this they are easy to get wrong. This version just about hits the nail on the head – comparatively unadorned, it gives the words the space they deserve. Ray, on the other hand, ratchets up the effects. In some ways it resembles the Beatles, or more specifically George Harrison’s mystic Orientalism colliding with the psychedelic Edwardiana, circuses and mechanical toys of Lennon’s Mr Kite. But it has a distinctly modern feel, detached – or rather displaced – that keeps it a mile away from pastiche.
This uncanny ability to exist outside of the boundaries of musical eras is what makes the Big Eyes Family Players’ blueprint such a sonically successful one. They have never been a straight folk band, despite the traditional albums of the past. Rather, they have a pop sensibility and an individuality that allows them to appropriate many genres without being in thrall to any of them. As the gloriously cacophonous finale of Like Saviours reaches a fever pitch of swirling psych and scuzz, it becomes clear that they are at the very top of their game, and that ‘Oh’ is perhaps their finest album to date.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Song for Thirza (Live)
OH! is out now via Home Assembly Music
The album is released on vinyl as an edition of 250 copies with artwork by Laura Slater and comes with a download code. Buy Link.
Also available as digital release via Bandcamp: homeassemblymusic.bandcamp.com/album/oh