Here’s a goodie that I stumbled across via a Classic Rock cover disc*, amongst all the rock of various hues and stripes was ‘Strange Moon Rising’ a detached-sounding swampy gumbo with two female singers that sounded a little like PJ Harvey did before I stopped liking her**. This track just gnawed away at me, intriguing me with its mix of slide guitar, eerie rhythmic menace and vocals that switched from a slinky reportage to an almost choral purity at times. Smoke Fairies Through Low Light And Trees hit my doormat about a week later.
Two young English ladies, Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire, from Sussex via a stint in New Orleans, Smoke Fairies get labelled ‘folk’ far too easily I think, possibly just as a default category. I understand why, we have two very English voices, sparse instrumental arrangements (mostly) and certain harmonic structures maybe, but I don’t really see it myself there is nothing authentically folky hereabouts. Now I would hasten to add I’m no expert when it comes to folk music at all, my knowledge is refracted totally through the lens of 60’s dudes like Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Dylan, The Incredible String band and Fairport Convention and a liking for the more trad agrarian charms of Seth Lakeman*^. When I listen to Through Low Light And Trees I don’t get any sense of that tradition at all just certain phrasings and stylings occasionally.
What I do get is a sizable American influence, the slide guitar, certain bluesy structuring. Like all very British bands Smoke Fairies include a healthy dollop of Americana in their sound, which is possibly what Jack White heard in them when he released a couple early singles from them on his Third Man label, playing on one with them too. Recorded at Sawmills Studio in rural Cornwall (only accessible by boat apparently), Smoke Fairies engaged PJ Harvey collaborator Head to produce and this pays of brilliantly, music like this needs crystal clarity which we get but Mr Head keeps the crystalline dial set to exactly the right point, so Through Low Light And Trees never sounds cold or clinical.
The sleeve design is absolutely perfect, showing the ladies glimpsed through a car window in the trees, glowing blurred bright and white in the headlights. There’s a story there, a bit of moody noirish intrigue from the get-go. It looks exactly the way this LP sounds.
As the summer fades to a watery light
And autumn’s hues are coming to life
Can we start something new?
Just me and you
Through low light and trees
A future unseen is a future I can believe
‘Summer fades’ is the opener, plunging us into a Autumnal mood of regret, longing and yearning. The music is minimal, always taking a backseat to those stunning vocal harmonies, but evocative and clever nonetheless. Both Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies are credited with guitar and vocals on this one, whilst a viola, bass and drums round out the rest of the sound. There’s nothing as simple as a chorus here but the repeated refrain of,
Can you hold me like you held someone you shouldn’t have let go?
Can you keep me deep inside like the regrets that burnt a hole?
Can you love me like you loved someone you loved so long ago?
does the job perfectly. It makes me want a girlfriend vaguely haunted by her past, purely so our ardour can flicker and die, before we attempt, hopelessly, to resurrect it to the sound of this tune. Or failing that how about the London as Satan / city v. country sentiments of ‘Devil In My Mind’, which has the most folky sound on the LP? ‘Devil..’ peaks and troughs like the sea, the band pull off the neat trick of making the crescendos within it sound inevitable as they crash over you.
‘Hotel Room’ pulls a neat left turn, the lyrics talk of love but I hear something a little sleazier beneath the sheets and between the lines. The music has a spritely a guitar line that you can’t shake out of your head and I love the line ‘something deep inside flickers on like a strip light’^.
There is lots of really great stuff here, my favourite changes depending on my mood but I am very taken with ‘Erie Lackawanna’, a song for a lost house, a lost community, lost country demolished for the railroad of the same name (I looked it up), the emotion spiked by some guitar snarl under the vocals. My other favourite is the closer, ‘After The Rain’, which is about falling out of love with someone and has the rather spiffing line ‘I don’t want to know why you flinch when you’re dreaming’ in it. In fact it’s interesting to look at the lyrics today as they’re a lot bleaker and more pessimistic than I’d realised after 4 years of owning Through Low Light And Trees, those harmonies certainly do sugar the pill.
You could criticise this album for maybe not showing enough variation towards the end of the second side, but you’d be being picky – besides they went off exploring on their next three LPs. I really enjoy this one, particularly as my own angelic tones harmonise so well with theirs when I’m in the car, they could, and probably should, hire me as an Automobile Based Backing Singer (known as an ABBS, in the trade).
I’m pleased I picked up on Smoke Fairies and I get a lot of enjoyment from this music, despite it being, or maybe just because, it is very different to most of my sounds. Best of all? they’re opening for Public Service Broadcasting when I see them in April, so technically they will be the first band my son sees live^^, a damn fine start I say.
(pictures above pinched from their official page)
**Can’t forgive White Chalk, sorry.
*^the only modern folker (MF?) I like at all; the rest can just bugger off and stop clogging up the pages of Mojo every month with their rootsy whinings!
^great lyrics all through this track:
One Blue Shivering Star
Neon Shapes From The Bar
On Shining Rain Drenched Streets
Got Blue Light Beneath My Feet
^^mine were Dokken. Jeez, kids today get all the advantages!