At Folk Radio UK, we’ve followed Adam Holmes and the Embers with no little interest. As far back as 2011 the band provided an exclusive session for the site (listen here), and just over two years ago their debut release, Heirs and Graces, was a Featured Album of the Month (read the review here). The album’s been followed by a busy couple of years that’s seen a wide variety of live shows for the band, award nominations, fascinating collaborations for Adam himself, and a second session on Folk Radio UK (listen here). Heirs and Graces was listed as one of the Telegraph’s Best Folk Albums of 2014, nominated for Album of the Year at the 2014 Scot’s Trad Music Awards and long-listed for the 2014 Scottish Album of the Year Award. Following on from that success, the band release their second album on June 10th, Brighter Still.
One of the fascinating things about Adam’s music is the variety of influences you’ll hear. His work with Scottish band Rura blends skillful song-writing with rugged, imaginative re-interpretations of Scottish musical traditions. The songs and arrangements for Heirs And Graces capitalized on that experience, and an upbringing that included regular exposure to Edinburgh’s live folk and roots scene from a very early age. The strong trad influences were tempered, though, by a fondness for a more mainstream musical culture. As well as the clear John Martyn and Richard Thompson influences there are shades of Neil Young in the arrangements and in the song-writing.
Opening Brighter Still, the steady beat of When The Lights Go Down does more than hint at an evolution in Adam’s approach to his song writing. With his clear and soulful vocal over a sure and steady beat; from the onset we have an indication of the growing confidence in his own ability to write, arrange and produce the music he loves. The song’s main backdrop is that reassuring heartbeat, but the gospel inspired chorus and keyboards add an extra dimension and a sense of warmth.
Adam’s allowed these aspects a stronger hold on his writing for the new album, and Brighter Still shows a distinct progression. Those early days spent at the Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s, though, still leave a lasting impression on his music and the folk influences of his childhood are still there in abundance. Shining Star with its gentle acoustics, laid back beat and positive message delivers a fine example. After a choral organ opening, piano and acoustic guitar underpin the gentle drawl of Adam’s vocal that can often be so reminiscent of John Martyn. The familiar approach is even more evident in Love Down The Line, where Adam’s questioning lyrical style shows an enjoyment of a poetic approach to his writing. Opening with voice and acoustic guitar, it’s laid back and with a very perceptible country swing that’s much enhanced when Eddi Reader joins on vocals and the song moves on to a duet. As Stuart Nisbet‘s slide guitar eases its way into the mix, the song’s country roots are affirmed and we enjoy two of the finest Scottish voices you’ll hear singing modern songs. It’s a high point in a highly enjoyable album. The bittersweet Joanna also displays an American influence with a steady build of vocal, percussion and slide guitar that’s vaguely reminiscent of Lowell George, and equally irresistible.
Stuart Nisbet has provided memorable guitar work for some of the best names in Scottish music (Carol Laula, Mull Historical Society, Aly Bain) and is one of a few new names in The Embers’ line up. The imaginative and thoroughly dependable rhythm section of Calum McIntyre on percussion and Alex Hunter on bass remains, but the addition of John Lowrie on piano and the spiritual lift of Colin Train‘s Hammond Organ are essential elements of the progressive sound the album enjoys, and are already familiar to those who’ve been enjoying the steady touring schedule the band have kept up between albums,
It would, probably, have been an easy option for Adam to adopt the same approach that brought success with Heirs and Graces; bring in John Wood as producer, and play to his folk scene strengths. It’s clear, however, that there’s no chance of Adam resting on his laurels, and One Soul is a fine example of where his song writing combines with Iain Hutchison‘s production insight to create something that shines in every sense. Despite the mellow and introspective content, it’s a song that creates an ultimately positive outlook from sad childhood memories, and is raised from any moribund sentiments by the rich development of the sound, as the song builds with layers of keys and uplifting backing vocal.
Adam’s music is gentle and mellow, steady paced, thoughtful. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s totally opposed to stepping up the beat. The encouraging lyrics of People Come/People Go exhibit more of a Paul Simon influence, enhanced by its light shades of latin in the rhythm section; while the bright, breezy I Want To Be Your Friend provides more encouragement alongside John’s piano and playful backing vocals.
Both of these tracks are a clear indication that Adam’s wide-ranging collaborations since Heirs And Graces have provided ample inspiration for new approaches to his music. Currently touring as the featured singer in John McCusker‘s band, he’s contributed to the latest project from Martin Green of Lau, Flit and joined Heidi Talbot on her single, Christmas In September which premiered on Folk Radio UK (listen here). Nadine is one of Adam’s new songs that’s been very warmly received in his live shows, provoking a stream of enquiries from fans on social media about when a recording would be available. Well, Adam and the band have obliged the fans by including the song on the new album and it stands out from the very start. With haunting guitar and a ghostly, wail of backing vocal from Eddi Reader, Nadine uses the onset of autumn as a metaphor for inconstancy. It’s a carefully and expertly crafted painting – the guitar a rolling of dark clouds, the backing vocal a wailing of winds. A stormy masterpiece of heightened emotion.
The album closes with Adam singing a happy, but regretful goodbye in Cutting Loose. With an incredibly light production the song could almost be a sing along around a pub piano. It’s a return to, and an acknowledgement of, all those formative musical and family influences. It’s confirmation that he must move on, and that’s exactly what Adam’s achieved with this album.
Brighter Still doesn’t ride on the coat-tails of the success Heirs and Graces enjoyed. Rather than adopting the safe approach of ‘that went well, let’s do it again‘; Adam has gained confidence in his own ability and taken his music forward. Not in a new direction, but off on a gentle tangent that explores what else can be achieved when the quality of the song writing leaves ample space for adventure. The music is still rooted in the rhythm & blues, country and folk that’s inspired Adam, but on this album he allows his own voice as a singer, song-writer and musician shine Brighter Still.
Brighter Still is released June 10th
Exclusive Signed CDs Available to Pre-Order via Adam Holmes & The Embers website here.
Adam is a featured singer on John McCusker’s Anniversary Tour (details here) which continues around the UK until mid-May, before he begins his own headline tour and plays festival shows throughout the summer:
3rd Ullapool The Ceilidh Place
4th Inverness Brew at the Bog Festival
8th Aberdeen The Blue Lamp
9th Glasgow CCA (album launch show)
10th Stirling The Tolbooth
24th Hagen, Germany Stadthalle
25th – 28th Tønder Festival, Denmark
31st London The Green Note
[+ Edinburgh International Festival – 2 x shows with Flit by Martin Green of Lau and members of Portishead, Mogwai and The Unthanks – this show will tour the UK in October]
2nd Stroud The Convent
3rd Trelawnyd Trelawnyd Hall