Feature Album: Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill
UK folk-pop quartet Stornoway's debut lp Beachcomber's Windowsill takes roughly a minute to win you over. On the opener and first single, the thrilling 'Zorbing', over a single repeated guitar note, singer Brian Briggs starts in with his glacier- pure voice about the rush of first love, backed by the fussily perfect harmonies of his bandmates. Like the unreasonable emotions Briggs sings about, the whole thing gains swooning momentum in what seems like an instant, riding its three and half minutes of pop bliss out with jaunty piano and ecstatic horn trills. It's some beginning.
Stornoway began in the hallowed halls of Oxford University, where Briggs and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ouin bonded over a love of Teenage Fanclub. After finding a rhythm section, the foursome lighted on a brand of tightly played, whimsical folk-pop that would soon have a BBC Oxford DJ devoting a whole show to them, and bigger and bigger Oxford audiences being won over by their formidable live show. All the while, the four lads (with occasional help from Rahul Satija on violin and Briggs' brother on trumpet) laboured over the songs that would eventually become Beachcomber's Windowsill, their thoroughly gorgeous, life-affirming debut lp.
Unsurprisingly for a band that came together at Oxford, and that counts among its members two PhDs (one in ornithology, one in Russian literature), Stornoway make erudite, literary music, rich in wordplay and peppered with obscure references. Happily, though, on Beachcomber's Windowsill, the four have delivered a set of pastoral pop gems in which melody and pop immediacy triumph over cleverness at almost every turn, the lads putting their considerable grey matter in service of their hooks, rather than the other way around.
There's no better example than 'Zorbing', where the mad dawn of new love is compared to an obscure extreme sport invented fifteen years ago in New Zealand. Instead of wondering what the hell Zorbing might be, though, and how it relates to the heady ridiculousness of falling for someone, you're soon whisked away by the massed harmonies and buoyant horns. You don't really have time to think too much––you just get giddy, shiver a bit, and wonder what just happened.
Like Warpaint, whose excellent debut lp, The Fool, we looked at last time, Stornoway laboured over their debut lp for five years until they felt they had it right, going as far as to send the almost finished lp back to New York to have the mastering tweaked –– six times. Almost all the songs on Beachcomber's Windowsill were recorded by Stornoway themselves, on an eight track affectionately known as Mrs. 802, in community centres, dorm bedrooms and garages. Not that you can tell: everything on Beachcomber's Windowsill is played and recorded with unerring precision, ensuring the record's nimble, sunny melodies have room to breathe and stretch out, and that the more than 100 instruments employed –– everything from a Dutch church bell to Celtic fiddles –– never get in each other's way.
Lyrically, Beachcomber's Windowsill catalogues the various obsessions of the bright young Oxfordians –– birds (of course), first loves, getting older, the perils of the digital age –– in eleven songs that take in hushed jangle ('On the Rocks'), pure, giddy pop ('I Saw You Blink') and string-led laments ('The End of the Movie'). A wide-eyed joyousness is all over the record; even the songs that start out sombre ('The Coldharbour Road', 'Long-Distance Lullaby') end up celebratory, cathartic or both.
It's a record rich in detail, featuring, among the 100 instruments, band members muttering, carrots being chopped, and eight-track hiss; that rare kind of album whose charms come out on first listen, but which, twenty spins down the line, still has many delights in store. Let's hope we don't have to wait five years for the next one.