This ‘Stornoway’ article was written by Alistair Ryder, a GIGsoup contributor
In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast last year, Josh Tillman (the borderline musical genius best known as Father John Misty) listed every single inauthentic lyrical cliche delivered by so-called folk bands such as Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. This long list included random references to US cities and state names, references to unborn sons and “your brother’s wisdom”. Over the course of three albums, Oxford band Stornoway have managed to expand their sound beyond their initial folk trappings, whilst still retaining enough of their original sound to not entirely alienate their fanbase, ensuring comparisons with either of the bands listed above (or indeed, any of the countless generic acoustic-led bands currently popular) are implausible.
Their 2015 album Bonxie was a wholehearted embrace of a classic 60’s pop sensibility, yet the increased use of synthesisers in many songs (such as Get Low) proved distracting – in mere moments different instruments could go from “perfectly complimenting each other” to “clashing”, often in the space of the same verse. The idea of an “unplucked” EP, stripping the five first tracks from that album down to their base acoustic elements, sounds like a winning proposition; after all, the tracks on the album were undeniably the most anthemic they have written, but ones that were frequently confused by the clashing instrumentation, something even legendary producer Gil Norton could resolve.
This EP helps make clear the undeniable charm of their latest songs, as well as showing what makes Stornoway a unique proposition amongst the current wave of “nu-folk” bands. They clearly take their music seriously, as every song here is carefully instrumented – few bands would take this amount of care when stripping their music down. This isn’t what makes them unique; what gives them that designation is that, when placed against other bands in the same genre, they are by far the most fun. Despite being stripped down, the songs here still feel playful, even whilst remaining a core pop sensibility that ensures they are ear-worm inducingly catchy. The EP closes, somewhat inexplicably, with a cover version of Yazz’s 1988 cheese hit The Only Way is Up – and yet again, the carefully considered instrumentation makes it rise above the level of the standard Radio 1 Live lounge cover, where many bands just choose a song because they think it’ll be funny, taking little time to adapt it to fit their style.
If a band such as Mumford and Sons adapt to a lyrical style of faux-Americana, Stornoway’s lyrical missteps are saved from the fact it seems like they are deliberately parodying their generic lyricism; opening track Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea talks of a lover who, among their many charms, will “feed my horses”. Of course, this could equally be read as going in the opposite direction- embracing a heightened Englishness that fetishises upper class lifestyles in the same way Mumford & Sons favour songs about US state names and their “brother’s wisdom”. Either way, the song (and every other song on the EP) has charm and a deliriously catchy sensibility of the variety that seems to elude the majority of modern acoustic bands. In fact, the sole problem with the album is that the lyrics often feel hollow, not provoking an emotional response due to the fact the band often seem to be trying to upturn the stereotypes associated with the artificial nature of modern folk lyricism. The lyrics written directly to engage audiences appear to be torn from the pages of a self-help book – “when you’ve got a plan, don’t let go” is as generic as lyrics can possibly come, the sort of empty sentiment that can be easily chanted by large festival audiences.
Although not without faults, Bonxie Unplucked is far more charming and anthemic than its full-length predecessor – you are just left wishing the band took as much care and attention to lyrics as they did to their instrumentation.
‘Bonxie Unplucked’ is out on the 18th September 2015, via Cooking Vinyl