Monday, August 11, 2008

Death and All His Friends

Noah and The Whale - Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down (Mercury, 2008)

‘Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down’ is not exactly the kind of enthusiastic, life-affirming title you might expect from a debut album by a group barely into their twenties. Noah and the Whale’s songwriter Charlie Fink is clearly a little more precocious than Tim Wheeler or Gaz Coomes were in the mid-90s. The chirpy optimism of songs along the lines of ‘Alright’ or ‘Girl From Mars’ clearly don’t chime with him.

The twee bubblegum folk of their top ten single ‘5 Years’ Time’ is therefore more than a little misleading of what can be found here. Fink’s biggest themes would appear to be death and a rather self-conscious flight from whatever real love might be. Sometimes his words are eloquent, sometimes they feel forced – as if he’s grasping too hard at profundity. He might be leaving himself very exposed to accusations of cynicism with lyrics like ‘if there’s any love in me don’t let it show’ – but he can be forgiven the occasional lapse into adolescent pretence (especially, as he later asks, in all sincerity ‘when will your hand find itself in mine?’).

Whilst it might risk becoming an albatross around their necks, one can hardly resent the band from leaping to pop status on the back of ‘5 Years Time’. Odd, though, that they have very suddenly eclipsed all their associates in what is increasingly being dubbed as a London arm of the ‘anti-folk’ scene (the group began as backing band for Emmy The Great). The genre classification may in fact be less than helpful. I’m not quite sure what the indie-tronica of Jeremy Warmsley has to do with the ramshackle irreverence of Jeffrey Lewis, for example. Indeed, the reliance on basic strumming patterns as much as plucked ukuleles suggests the folk tag is a little too slippery for NaTW too. Although fiddle player Tom Hobden has clearly absorbed a great deal of the tradition, there are times when the band seems more Belle and Sebastian than Richard Thompson.

The first two-thirds of this album are, in spite of Fink’s preoccupations, mostly concise and breezy pop songs. They are at their best when they make features of Hobden’s incisive fiddle, or of Doug Fink’s unorthodox but sympathetic drumming (at its most brittle and sensitive, his playing assumes as crucial a role as any other instrument here). Even better, the songs are occasionally elevated by further brass embellishments, which emphasise the inherent joy beneath Fink’s self-absorbtion. ‘Shape of My Heart’ and ‘Give a Little Love’ are especially charming.

However, the true extent of what this band might eventually achieve only really emerges during the album’s finishing straight. The title track places Charlie’s slightly mannered voice in its most sympathetic context, and at last his desire to escape the circus of relationships and conveyor belts seems genuine, in spite of some rather unsightly rhymes (‘abrasions/ ‘quotations’ etc). When the song eventually bursts open with Hobden’s delightful violin theme, it achieves something simple but stirring.

On ‘Mary’, Fink allows himself to be a little more elusive and ambiguous and the results are affecting even if it’s not easy to pin down precisely why. The lyric ‘When I last saw Mary she lied and said it was her birthday’ has stuck with me since I first saw the group live, and I’m glad it’s made it on to the album. This song and the title track also seem to have a greater emphasis on development and progression – themes and ideas are expanded and the structures are a good deal less formulaic.

Those expecting an entire album of cute fluffiness may well have switched off by this point, but they’d be missing the burgeoning of a real songwriting talent. The funereal resignation of ‘Hold My Hand as I’m Lowered’ perhaps gives the more accurate sense of Fink’s laudable ambitions, its sombre brass band coda somehow both world-weary and elevating.

There’s a sense that the Noah and the Whale of this album are not yet the finished article (and let’s not forget that this is exactly how a debut album should present a band – with somewhere left to go!). If Charlie Fink can shed some of his po-faced exterior (I remember feeling he spent too long staring at his shoes in live performance), he is clearly capable of writing clear, haunting and mature songs. If this supposed London-centred ‘scene’ is let down by one unifying factor, it would appear to be a tendency towards narcissism. Luckily, Fink already has the able support of a band unique (at least among British chart acts) in their willingness to provide unusual, unexpected arrangements that linger satisfyingly in the mind.

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