Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill

Rating: ★★★½ ·

In what seems an endless stream of choral, men’s folk group releases in the past year or so (i.e. The Avett Bros., Mumford and Sons to name a few), another has come along with a highly impressive entrance; this time from across the pond. Coming in with their debut album via 4AD, is the quartet (+ two) Stornoway, hailing from Oxford. Their debut album is chockfull of beautiful vocal arrangements and tight folk instrumentation, including a healthy string section, a scholarly intelligence, and a distinctive character to today’s folk music.

Although Stornoway resonate folk in its purest sense, few folk groups can convincingly croon about the topics of which these Oxford lads converse. The opening track, ‘Zorbing’ gives the listener a good sense of the experiential disconnects. (Try to make it through the whole video without feeling nauseous.) Zorbing if you weren’t aware “is the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb”. This track was the first single to catch the airwaves several years ago in the U.K.. The release only whet the appetite for hungry ears, though only recently are they getting much attention states-side. Correspondingly to this rather obscure hobby, the album slowly rolls along a gentle slope in a graceful and joyous manner. The addition of organ and harpsichord on ‘Fuel Up’ makes this song a dense, catchy tune. The violin and piano intro combined with the stark vocals give ‘The Coldharbour Road’ a more dark, haunting, and bitter tone but the track builds into a warming glow like a lantern on a dim-lit ocean-side.

While listening to ‘We Are the Battery Human’ and a healthy dose of banjo with barber shop quartet vocals is the perfect soundtrack to jump in the Lorry with a group of mates and drive aimlessly after a few pints. This reaction is similar to the way the record as a whole feels. It’s carefree and simple but with a sophisticated tone about it. ‘Watching Birds’ is without a doubt the heaviest anthem on the record. It’s a barn burner with the accompaniment of a kazoo! The title of this track refers to the fun fact that lead singer Brian Briggs holds a PhD in Ornithology, the study of birds. Supposedly during their live sets, he likes to teach the audience of habits of birds and their characteristics, though I have to see this to believe it.

The group slows the tempo back down for ‘On the Rocks’, a slow building ballad focusing more on the vocals and beautiful songwriting. Before long, the snare drum beat accelerates into a locomotive pushing the song along with wonderful harmonies and the vocals grow into a goose-bump inducing crescendo. On ‘Long Distance Lullaby’, the bell tolls for the final track and an echo of “good night” and a wonderful send off for one of the finest debut records to come wafting in the winds from the UK in a long time.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/01-stornoway-zorbing.mp3]

Download: Stornoway – Zorbing [MP3]

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