It was a few hours after The Gloaming had grabbed the Choice Music Prize from under Hozier’s nose that I first listened to Ham Sandwich’s third album. The timing was coincidental but apt, reminding of a conversation with a band member the day that their White Fox record failed to make the 2010 list – a sense of the uphill struggle the band had been on since they had scrapped their first recordings and started over on the day of manager Derek Nally’s funeral. As dark as it may have seemed at the time, a dawn was to follow as the album – and band – gradually worked away into the public consciousness.
That path has continued during the build-up to Stories From The Surface, meaning that there’s a new sense of anticipation greeting its release, as well as more to lose. The recording too has not been without its apparent problems, with a supposed 2014 arrival date coming and going. That first listen a month or so ago proved to be a slightly disappointing one, suggesting a beautiful sounding album low on immediate charms. It was a fair analysis, in that those charms were there in abundance but take time to reveal themselves. This isn’t a record that feels the need to shower the listener with treats to get their attention, despite the band’s obvious way with a melody. Instead it draws you in, works hard for your affection and leaves a lasting impression on your soul.
Produced once again by Karl Odlum, it represents another huge step forward – as did White Fox from the guitar heavy Carry The Meek – and reflects the band that have become such a live force of late, complete with added strings and brass. It’s not a full scale assault on the senses though, as the band choose the moments to use the extra elements wisely to help the material burst into life at the opportune time. The vocal partnership between Niamh Farrell and Podge McNamee (so much a part of their sound so far) has shifted too, the latter’s gorgeous baritone still evident but now more of an angel on the former’s shoulder than a fully fledged duet partner.
Indeed, this is very much Farrell’s turn at the helm. Her vocal prowess has always been clear but here she delivers a set of lyrics that give Stories From The Surface another dimension. As with Villagers latest, a broken relationship lies at the heart of the narrative – although presented from a different aspect. So often we hear tales of lost love from those left behind but here she is the protagonist, walking away and into the arms of another. The words are bold, rueful but not regretful, looking forward instead of backwards and incredibly honest – “you want to fix me up right, I want to let you down”, “can you tell me why I put my eyes on someone else?”. For a young woman who’s already had her personal life put on show on more than one occasion, it’s a brave move.
Unlike Darling Arithmetic, however, the album sets the ideas and themes to a bright, colourful soundtrack. The first half is a reasonably straightforward, but no less fun, run through Ham Sandwich’s alternative pop world, now with added dancefloor fizz on ‘Apollo’ and ‘Illuminate’. In truth though, it’s not that kind of record – indicated by the fact that third single ‘Fandango’ is perhaps the weakest track on offer. The latter section is where they really come into their own. Given a mainstream friendly face by Danny Kalib’s sparkling mix, the musicianship and songwriting combine to take them to startling new heights. There’s genuine emotion too, not least when the male chorus sweeps in at the end of ‘To Replicate’. The final message (delivered by D’Arcy instead of Farrell) on the sweet and simple closer ‘All Worthwhile’ is a heartfelt farewell – “I loved you then but now we are just friends…let go”. As one door closes though, and with Stories From The Surface, Ham Sandwich have opened up a whole new world that is their’s for the taking.