London folkies grow up and cut back their chirpiness to turn in a corker of an album
As concept albums go, a trudge through the aftermath of a break-up hardly makes for a tale as fantastical as ‘Tommy’ or ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, but even so, [b]‘The First Days Of Spring’[/b] is a story we could listen to again and again.
[a]Noah And The Whale[/a] might have hijacked last summer with ‘Five Years Time’ – which was lovely the first few times you heard it, but the hundredth listen kinda made you want to build a wicker whale, fill it with all the recorders in Britain and take a blowtorch to it – but now is the time for forgiveness. The band have changed their tune to that of a sunny swoon, filled with regret, pain, poignant optimism and fewer zany instruments. The six-minute-plus title track sets the unhurried pace, with spiralling, blockbusting indie-folk that’s big on the cinematics; handy, seeing as, like Tommy and Ziggy, there is also a film to accompany the whole record. Mournful but shot through with hope, the song’s echoes of ’80s troubadour Lloyd Cole crescendo into a chamber-pop odyssey that could stop [a]Arcade Fire[/a] in their tracks.
On ‘My Broken Heart’ [b]Charlie Fink[/b]’s worldly wise yet still tremblingly naive baritone pitches him as both man and boy. It’s the same on [b]‘Stranger’[/b], where Fink laments “Last night I slept with a stranger/For the first time since you’ve gone” over sticky morning-after-the-night-before fingerpicking before seeing light at the end of the regretful shag tunnel by way of some cheery old-school Noah piano, acoustics and harmonies. [b]‘Slow Glass’[/b] impresses further, with its pondering, [a]Pavement[/a]-esque lo-fi guitars, and if anything quite as exquisite as [b]‘Blue Skies’[/b] has been released this year, then we haven’t heard it.
Artful experimentation also gets a look in with two instrumentals – featuring an orchestra tuning up, pealing church bells and melancholic electric guitar plucking – book-ending [b]‘Love Of An Orchestra’[/b]. Sitting snugly in the middle of the record, it opens with an unaccompanied choir and is the most obvious link to the band’s more upbeat and decidedly twee-er tracks of yore, a high-gloss intelli-pop number that comes on like [a]Belle And Sebastian[/a] when they started skipping arm-in-arm with Trevor Horn. It’s yet more proof that the quirky band with that perky tune haven’t disappeared, but they have done a hell of a lot of growing up. An immense album.
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