Our favourite psych-folk outfit’s latest record, the followup to last year’s magnificent opus The Sovereign Self, takes the form of a subliminally exciting new seven-track mini-album to which it clearly forms a companion piece while standing alone in its own right as an integrated entity – albeit still laced, in customary Trembling Bells fashion, with layers of reference and connection to both the band’s earlier work and its characteristic myriad of inspirations from across musical culture.
Lyric-wise, the disc’s binding thread has to be the spirit of place and time; it’s creatively bookended by two of Alex Neilson’s invocations of special places. The opening Wide Majestic Aire, as well as (in a purely musical sense) sounding quite literally such, evokes the landscape of the river that flows through Alex’s home town of Leeds, walks along whose banks so powerfully infused his formative years, inextricably linked to the music he was listening to at the time. The gently expansive romantic folk-rock character of this song may at first seem a world away from the more overtly ear-grabbing opening of The Sovereign Self, but Lavinia Blackwell’s singing is no less commanding here as she depicts Alex’s perambulation from Leeds to Oxford to a melody that has a lilting “catch the wind” overtone, introducing hymnal organ and tumbling drums to set the seal on a mood of reverential reflection that’s almost tearful in its sheer beauty of sound. No wonder that Alex himself considers this song among his favourites that he’s written. The disc’s closing track Round Marble Arch takes both its cue and equally relaxed groove from a rather 70s-prog-rock guitar figure, from which Lavinia’s voice soars majestically much in the manner of Annie Haslam. However, if I’m pressed, I’d say that although this latter track well fits the EP’s theme, it’s arguably just a touch underwhelming as a finale, and its fadeout seems all too hasty.
What comes between the disc’s bookends, though, is predictably glorious in the distinctively grand and slightly challenging Trembling Bells manner we know and love. Notably track two, England Was Aghast, where rumbling Velvets-style atmospherics gate-crash all yesterday’s parties, succeeded by chunkily opaque rhythms and duelling fuzz-guitars in a mad dance round the bonfire of memory for the hallucinatory delight of a future king. A splendid track, and seriously repeatable before moving on to the next item on the menu! The suffocating romantic infatuation of Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It) is driven by a mournful trombone-and-organ motif that recalls classic Anthems-In-Eden mode Shirley & Dolly Collins with a touch of Incredible String Band, which eventually yields its baroque delicacy to an Emerlist Davjack/first-album-Purple style organ-and-guitar workout. The next track, Swallows Of Carbeth, closely mirrors, and forms a companion piece to, the song Willows Of Carbeth on the band’s earlier album, in that it links profound personal and place memories in tribute to a lost love: intensely sensitive, moving and powerful. A location recording of seagulls, bells and water ushers in I Love Bute, which convincingly links and pursues the pervasive theme of sense-of-place (Wemyss Bay rather than Anderson’s Coast), again tempered by regretful personal reminiscence and a ritual round-dance coda. Enigmatic, brief and intimate penultimate track The Day Maya Deren Died is sung by Alex unaccompanied, in the traditional mode as testament to his belief in the naked elemental power of the unadorned lone human voice. Its teasing lyric starts out as a personal account of a daunder in Glasgow’s Kelvinside on the day in question, which then proceeds to trigger other memories of friends (a soldier and an artist) before taking a trad-folk “I wish I was in London town” slant for the final verse, which neatly links through the Marble Arch to the above-mentioned closing track. In which context, it’s even more of a mystery, then, to discover that this engrossing little song doesn’t seem to appear on the CD incarnation of the mini-album but can be found on the vinyl version.
Postscript: I hasten to add that, lest the reader be wondering at the florid language of the above review, the writer can freely admit that the piece has been penned entirely without the beneficial and recommended quaffing of the specially brewed 4.3%-ABV IPA that’s kindof-named after this mini-album (sadly, no review copies of the limited-run Wide Majestic Ale have been made available! You can read about this lovely looking brew here).
Trembling Bells are on their album-promotion UK tour now, climaxing at the ATP Festival in Prestatyn, where the band will perform No Roses (the iconic Shirley Collins/Albion Country Band album) in consort with John Kirkpatrick.
Review by: David Kidman
Trembling Bells Tour Dates
5 April, Marc Riley live session
6 April, Glad Cafe, Glasgow
7 April, Liverpool, The Buyers Club
8 April, Winchester, The Railway
9 April, Bridgwater, Bridgwater Arts Centre
10 April, Oxford, The Cellar
11 April, Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Cafe
12 April, Brighton, Komedia
13 April, Ramsgate, Music Hall
14 April, London, Cafe Oto
17 April, Stewart Lee’s ATP Festival, Prestatyn, Trembling Bells (1pm)
“John Kirkpatrick & Trembling Bells perform “NO ROSES” (2pm)
29 April, St Andrew’s Poetry Festival
14 June, Edinburgh, Sneaky Pete’s (with Big Hogg)
15 June, Manchester, The Deaf Institute (& Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 2 Folk Show live session)
16 June, TBC
17 June, Whitstable, Sessions Music Club
18 June, Sin Eater Festival, Shropshire
19 June, Bath, The Bell
20 June, Cambridge, Portland Arms
21 June, Stroud, Stroud Valley Artspace
22 June, Cardiff, The Moon Club
23 June, London, Royal Albert Hall (supporting Belle & Sebastian on their 20th anniversary of “If You’re Feeling Sinister”)
24 June, Coventry, Old Grammar School
25 June, Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire
26 June, Leigh-on-sea Music Festival, Essex
27 June, Leicester, The Musician
28 June, Leeds, Headrow House
29 June, Newcastle, Cumberland Arms (with Horseloom)
19 August, Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival, Stirlingshire
23 September, The Verb (Radio 3 poetry program)