Alex Seel – Circles
Self Released – 21 July 2017
Alex Seel likes to take his time. Since 2013’s critically acclaimed album Shifting Sands all we’ve had to keep us going is one five-track EP – 2015’s excellent Other Paths. Now he’s back with another EP which sees him combine the winning formulas of those two previous releases – the folky prettiness of the former and the grittier, harder-edged contemporary protest songs of the latter – to come up with something that is, if anything, better than either.
Seel has often been compared to some of the greats of the folk music scene, notably Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, and indeed opening title track Circles sees him drift in on a lovely, fingerpicked guitar motif, influenced, perhaps, by Jansch, but gentler and somewhat more baroque in its approach. In fact, it veers closer at times to Jansch’s old musical sparring partner John Renbourn, and given the song’s lyrics has a fittingly cyclical feel to it.
Broken Faucet sees the introduction of a full band. The fingerpicking prowess is still evident, however, and the melody jogs along with a catchiness that would be the envy of many a radio-friendly country-pop superstar. Sure, the traces of Americana are strong, and there is even a touch of Bruce Springsteen about the windblown, road-weary electric guitar solo that concludes the song, but there is also a distinct but mysterious Englishness that emanates from the heart of the record, the same kind of low-key that made artists like Nick Drake and Robyn Hitchcock so instantly recognisable. In Seel’s case, it comes, at least in part, from his voice, which is warm and well-travelled without ever being overly saccharine or mannered.
That voice comes to the fore on the bounding, bluesy, Poor Boy. It sees Seel come back to the socially driven subjects he explored on Other Paths. Lyrically, it is subtle enough to avoid preachiness while the music is confident and forthright, anchored by Sam Winwood’s adroit drumming.
The Island is maybe the most fully realised combination of full-band drive and fingerpicked pastoralia, its understated folk-rock template concealing a host of memorable hooks. Seel’s precision playing finds an effective counterpoint in Keith Abingdon’s slide guitar.
Curious Heart sees him return to a purely solo approach, although the song’s gentleness is deceptive: the lyrics manage to be both timely and timeless, concerns that are undoubtedly contemporary are handled with a quiet, universal wisdom. Jansch is again a musical touchstone, as are Paul Simon and the much underrated Ralph McTell.
As well as the five original tracks on Circles we are treated to three ‘acoustic mixes’ of the three full band tracks, Broken Faucet, Poor Boy and The Island. They make for a worthwhile addition, providing something of an insight into the songwriting process while also showcasing the dexterity of Seel’s playing and the depth of his singing. Broken Faucet becomes a crisply strummed traveller’s blues, the dark humour of the lyrics become even more apparent, the chorus more prominent. Poor Boy’s verses gain a lo-fi, old-timey feel that chimes well with the song’s subject, while The Island takes on a bittersweet note, full of a yearning for freedom that encapsulates the entire EP’s lyrical preoccupation.
Circles is Alex Seel’s most personal release to date. His voice is a thing comprised of equal parts comfort and mystery, and it perfectly suits the songs, which are intimate but at the same time just a little bit untamed. The lyrics are full references to return: coming back to cherished places or returning to oneself on a more metaphysical level, and the music is immensely self-assured without ever losing its hint of vulnerability. In fact, it is rare to hear a songwriter so astutely match up words with music so that one complements the other to perfection. It might seem like a basic thing, bet when it actually occurs you know you are in the company of a truly talented songwriter. Seel is certainly one of those, and Circles is a small, bright gem of a record. We can only hope that a full-length album is on its way in the near future.
Order the CD direct from Alex here: https://www.alexseel.com/music
Broken Faucet/Poor Boy Single is released 14th July 2017
Visit Alex’s website for details of upcoming shows here: https://www.alexseel.com/live