Always nice to discover your personal enthusiasms are shared by people you respect. The new Trembling Bells album promo comes with a longish encomium from Joe Boyd. Among many wise things, he notes that they, “Incorporate in their music the essence of ‘folk’ without the form that can annoy many listeners. That means that their melodies and lyrics have a sense of history and Britishness that most contemporary bands lack, but without any of the ‘heritage’ atmosphere that clings to even the best revivalists in the folk world.”
“Abandoned Love”, happily, lives up to Boyd’s well-considered hype, a bold advance on last year’s already excellent “Carbeth”. The same elements remain – though perhaps less String Bandish whimsy – but this time, Trembling Bells are gutsier, more forthright, glowing with confidence as they pile through their rickety hybrids of folk, rock, Early Music and so on. The jazz influence is less overt, too, and there are times when many of the band’s improv backgrounds somehow coalesce into a more orthodox Scottish indie sound (no coincidence, perhaps, that Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson seems to have handled production this time out).
That said, the strongest innovation on “Abandoned Love” is a sense that Trembling Bells can rock, pretty boisterously, even when grappling it out with what may well be sackbutts. “Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart” may, for a brief second, sound like it’s setting off on a “Matty Groves”-like trajectory. But almost immediately it resolves into a distinctly Creedence-ish choogle, which picks up fuzz guitar, pedal steel, trombone and some ‘50s rock’n’roll vamping as it goes along, and pivots on a melodic duel between Lavinia Blackwall and Alex Neilson that often resembles a jaunty take on Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”.
If that sounds odd, it sounds even odder when it’s preceded by “September Is The Month Of Death”, a superbly precarious melodrama which, with its druidic invocations and air of a medieval processional, anchors on Blackwall’s ripe, scholarly emoting. The thing is, it all works tremendously well, with a palpable eclectic freedom to the playing and conceptualising; an unusually joyous, roistering take on psychogeography, perhaps.
It’s tough to get through this one without invoking Fairport Convention, and there are certainly again plenty of echoes buried in “Abandoned Love”. Curiously, though, parts feel like the Fairports working backwards, from a founding in British tradition towards an idiosyncratic adoption of American folk-rock. “Baby, Lay Your Burden Down” and “All Good Men Come Last”, among others, are reminiscent of those earlyish, full-blooded assaults on the Bob Dylan songbook like “Percy’s Song” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”.
Lovely record, anyhow, and I’m thrilled Trembling Bells will be playing the Uncut stage at The Great Escape next month.