Zachary Cole Smith has overcome a multitude of problems to make this intensely powerful album
Alfie : A Word In Your Ear
Manc folksters' over-egged debut...
music tradition they were brought up in was, for the most part, resolutely
urban: one of power, corruption and lies; panic in the streets; and, most
notoriously, 24-hour party people. But the whimsical and beguiling idea
behind Alfie is to take all that swagger and attitude off the streets and
onto the moors, a tacit acknowledgement that being off your face can be a
lot more enjoyable in a field than in a club.
Quite a lot of this debut album, then, resembles a soundtrack to the first
annual Hacienda Veterans' nature ramble. Expensive kagoules are, of course,
compulsory, while appearing to make an effort is largely forbidden. Hence
much of 'A Word In Your Ear' sounds phenomenally lackadaisical. The closest
comparison is to a rustic Charlatans, and not just because of Lee Gorton's
very good cheekbones and woozy, lisping way round a song. Like The Charlatans
(or label boss Badly Drawn Boy at his most infuriating), Alfie sometimes
only manage to write half a tune before becoming distracted: by a large
bumblebee, perhaps; or an excitingly devious breeze.
Unlike their early singles, though, a bigger budget and a bit of ambition
effectively cover up the cracks in the songwriting. Just when 'Not Half'
looks about to give up completely, a Dixieland jazz band turn up to propel
it along past the three-minute mark. And there are hints that, for all
the Beach-Boys-meet-'Bagpuss' reveries, the 'folk baggy' tag is starting
to irritate. Despite its Enid Blyton-esque title, 'Summer Lanes' belts
along with considerably more purpose than usual, even if the speed is
more rusty push-iron than Porsche, while the title track is a decent if
obvious attempt at the kind of woody fantasia achieved by Jim O'Rourke
on 'Women Of The World'. "C'mon lazy, move yourself," announces
Gorton during 'The Reverse Midas Touch', and frankly, you can see his point.
For the lasting impression is of an album that's inevitably rather nice,
and inevitably rather frustrating, too. It does seem churlish to expect
a debut of real substance from a band whose entire charm is derived
from their featherlight, elusive lack of substance. But that's
the problem here: like an exceptionally well-turned cloud, 'A Word In Your Ear'
is very pretty to contemplate while it's around, and yet largely
unmemorable when it's gone. Unlike most bands, maybe Alfie really
should get out less.
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