The insurgent popularity of folk music in recent years was bound to have an adverse affect on those left to fend for themselves on the mainstream’s fringes. The pressure to “do a Mumford” must surely be suffocating, and those turned off by Marcus and his offspring’s hard-strummin’ claims to authenticity (as well as the unprecedented, frightening level of success they have attained) may understandably look to separate themselves from popular perceptions of the genre.
One such act is Stornoway, who released their debut album, 2010’s Beachcomer’s Windowsill, in the eye of the initial Mumford hurricane, to a polite yet muted reception. Songs such as the darling ‘Fuel Up’ bore a sweetness that identified the Oxford quartet as the quaint arm of this fledgling quasi-movement. Sophomore effort Tales from Terra Firma, however, does its best to shed Stornoway’s somewhat twee image without straying too far from the safety of charming folk-pop – although any band that lists zorbing and yodelling among its hobbies is always going to sound tailor-made for Wes Anderson’s idea of reality.
A lot of the changes Stornoway have made are merely superficial. Five out of Tales‘ nine songs come in at over 10 minutes, but consistently lengthy songs are the only way the band will ever garner comparisons to Metallica or Joanna Newsom. With that said, the one-two punch of ‘You Take Me as I Am’ and ‘Farewell Appalachia’ bare little resemblance to the Stornoway of old and mark new-found territory.
‘You Take Me as I Am’ has a vital energy that betrays Windowsill‘s comforting hesitance. The surprise is compounded by a whirling organ riff, but there’s plenty else to be admired in the song’s ramshackle composition, as brass and strings hurriedly intrude on Brian Briggs’ vocals; it has the sort of messy exuberance not heard since the early days of Guillemots. The extreme contrast from the opener to ‘Farewell Appalachia’ is just as startling. By comparison, ‘Appalachia’ plays far more closely to type, despite an air of intangible maturity. Briggs sings of taking in “the lakes and pines with my nose and my ears and my eyes” and the listener is invited to revel in the same sparse ambiance, undistracted but for the accents of bells and scratchy, rolling mandolins.
Such sequencing is self-conscious and purposely misleading, as the rest of the album plays out as a redux of Beachcomber’s Windowsill but with noticeable if minor progressions, like the clarinet-aided climax to ‘The Great Procrastinator’ and ‘(A Belated) Invite to Eternity’s protracted evolution from uninspired indie-folk into a foreboding orchestral march. So, though their moniker may suggest a desire for artistic solitude and strident individuality, Stornoway are still very much the sound of young Middle England, making palatable acoustic folk for an agreeable audience. On an unrelated note, wasn’t it just Mother’s Day?