Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill

January 01, 1970



Let’s begin here:
If you were to chart rock bands from Oxford,
England, you’d
find newcomers Stornoway at the furthest point possible from Radiohead,
sonically and thematically. The band’s debut is awash in airy folk and sunny
pop melodies leavened by the occasional undertow of British winsomeness; rich,
sophisticated harmony singing suggestive of time spent in Church of England
choirs; a smorgasbord of non-digital instrumentation from chamber strings and
horns to celesta and banjo; and distinctly non-dystopian themes like first
love, long-distance “soul-mate” relationships, and hitting the pub with your
mates after long days in Oxford’s musty classrooms (two members sport PhDs from
the university).


Okay, so they’re
not Radiohead – but who then are they? An accurate comparison would be Laid-era James, and not just because
Stornoway singer Brian Briggs’ bright, proper-enunciation tenor sounds
uncannily like Tim Booth’s. On the Eno-produced Laid, James retreated from their acid-house-inspired beginnings to
a Brit folk foundation, and that is the territory Stornoway’s songs happily
occupy, mostly to strong effect. The quartet works best in breezy,
mostly acoustic pop cuts like “I Saw You Blink” and “Here Comes the
Blackout,” or more wistful fare like “Long Distance Lullaby” and “Boats and
Trains,” where lilting melodies are fleshed out with tasteful arrangements of
horns, piano and strings. Occasionally the band even approaches epic heights
when all the elements come together, as they do on a soaring melody like “On
the Rocks.”


Stornoway is less
successful when narratives hijack songs. In interviews they’ve referred to
their music as “maritime folk,” and the sonic seafaring element unfortunately
blows them off-course on a cut like the banjo-based ditty “We Are the Battery
Human.” That song’s tortured anti-technology metaphor bears the cumbersome
chorus, “we were born to be free range,” while other narrative conceits read obscure
enough that the work they require to untangle begins to seep enjoyment from
songs like the marvelously lilting single “Zorbing.” That track contrasts first
love with the Kiwi sport of hurling yourself downhill harnessed inside
life-size plastic balls, but you wind up spending more time thinking about the
logistics of, say, what it’s like inside that ball with a lot of throw-up, than
you do thinking about your first girl or boyfriend. This, it would seem a safe
bet, will be Stornoway’s chief hurdle going forward – finding a way to make
their narratives a little less heady and more universal without betraying their
higher educations. If they can pull that off, the rest – musicianship,
songwriting, arrangements, exuberance – is already in place.


DOWNLOAD: “Boats and
Trains,” “On the Rocks” JOHN



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