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Trembling Bells, "Carbeth"

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Alex Neilson's name shouldn't be unfamiliar around here (drummer for Baby Dee, Current 93, The One Ensemble, and Jandek). The debut of Trembling Bells brilliantly blends ancient themes with individual concerns and traditional song structures with more modern twists. It has as a euphoric balance of dissonance and melody, fine musicianship, emotional conviction, and a sense of humor.

 

Honest Jon's

Trembling Bells - Carbeth

My first thought upon hearing Carbeth was to wonder what the members of the Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention might have thought of this recording; with its moments of intense restraint and overblown beauty, slight nods to US country music, soaring voices, echoes of eerie plainsong, and vibrant, ecstatic choruses. I didn't have to wait long for something of a reliable answer, as no less an authority than Joe Boyd (producer of both those earlier groups) is very much in favor of Trembling Bells. And no wonder. Their overall sound sways close to that of an unfussy but expertly mic'd gig; the kind that Boyd consistently arranged.

There's a good contrast between Neilson's thinner voice and Lavinia Blackwall's amazing, almost operatic singing. Their shared vocal duties are particularly good on "I Took To You (Like Christ To Wood)," a track which, after the pair wail "I am getting out of Glasgow...into the endless night" erupts into an unrepentantly full-on reel. The charm of their a cappella piece, "Seven Years A Teardrop", has eluded me so far, but it does provide contrast.  Blackwall has also been compared to the unique Sandy Denny, but I can't go along with that. Although she is pretty marvelous here, and does have a similar mournful purity, Blackwall fluctuates sharply between a warbling soprano and a deeper, atonal moan, sometimes in the same verse. When she flips betwen the two, especially on the fabulous "Willows of Carbeth," it's as if she's channeling Judy Collins one second and Nico the next. This song is the obvious highlight, not least as the lyrics hint at mythical or metaphorical transformation: an old device, a staple of North European folk music, to describe the madness and magic of love and reveal the mystique of everyday topics (or cloak them in it). In the song, Blackwall remembers a walk with a former loved one who was naming trees, her favorite being the willow sheltering other couples beside a river. Suddenly rejected, she fails to numb her mind with alcohol and instead recalls little things which remind her of those blissful times, before likening herself to the weeping willow, now merely standing by and watching others love. 

All the playing is excellent and well-judged, as is expected from such reknowned improvisers as Neilson. Just as admirable is the firm grasp of simplicity and the mostly non-abstract nature of these songs.  "The End Is The Beginning Born Knowing" is a good example of Trembling Bells' approach. It incorporates rapid stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a looping melodic theme, but feels like a remake of some ancient music. Many of the pieces on Carbeth have several changes of pace and cleverly appear to have been cut-up and reassembled in a different order- either with chorus preceeding verse, or slow intro coming at the end of the song, as wistful coda. "Summer's Waning" is one exception, maintaining a slow, almost blues-like dirge, close to the style of (1960s UK group) Chicken Shack, from it's first note and memorable opening line: "Summer's waning, I was drinking, to your heath, while mine was fading".

As I'm a sucker for wry, romantic folk, I don't expect to hear a more rewarding record this year and thoroughly enjoyed the rambling references to poets, herbs, crimson lips, blood, dreams, pilgrims, kingdoms, smoking, drinking, stars, trees, nights, incantations, memories, people flying, burdens, the foolish and the wise. But even if these topics don't appeal there's an undeniably satisfactory jangle, crash, and thump to these tracks which will draw in a wider audience. The only complaint with this release is feeling obliged to list the members' impressive other projects! Drummer Alex Neilson backed Jandek on his first live gigs, collaborates with Richard Youngs, has assisted Alasdair Roberts, Ashtray Navigations, Six Organs of Admittance, Will Oldham, The One Ensemble, Baby Dee and Current 93, and has founded Scatter and Directing Hand. Singer Lavinia Blackwall is also in the Pendulums, Black Flowers and Directing Hand. Guitarist Ben Reynolds previously worked with Neilson in Motor Ghost and his solo album How Day Earnt Its Night is out next month: on this showing I can't wait to hear it! Bassist Simon Shaw was the driving force of Lucky Luke, and additional players George Murray (trombone) and Aby Vuillamy (viola) were in the aformentioned Scatter and The One Ensemble.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 09 May 2009 14:44  


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