I used to be an ardent admirer of Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian fame. Sigh. Such a fine songwriter! The Boy with the Arab Strap was one of my favorite albums of all time and I didn’t miss Isobel or the alt-Stuart when they decided to split. I loved The Life Pursuit, too!
Then Stu got a spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and started to believe he was as great as they said he was and became yet another pretentious musician with a pretentious fan base (who insist on describing Belle & Sebastian’s music as “art,” the kiss of death for any band).
Anyway, Murdoch’s demise left me yearning for something from Bonny Scotland, which led me to stumble upon Admiral Fallow. This is a more folk-influenced band with delightfully intense Scottish accents who have been playing second fiddle to bands like Belle & Sebastian for a few years. I downloaded a copy of their latest release, Tree Bursts in Snow, and I am here to make my official pronouncement about its worth.
Definitely worth it and then some!
Singer-songwriter Louis Abbott is front man and songwriter for the band, and he sings his lyrics with passion and precision. While I certainly would have appreciated a digital booklet (and the lyrics deserve one), I had no problem following and the words and the subtext.
And the band is so very, very good! The precision never turns sterile, the arrangements are often complex but never interfere with the stories in the songs and the diversity of sound is remarkable for the genre. The strings are particularly moving and lovely in the song “Burn,” and the simple guitar pluck-accordion-clarinet-bass-drum arrangement of “Oh, Oscar” creates a moving musical picture.
Tree Bursts in Snow opens with the lovely voice of Sarah Hayes on the semi-title track, “Tree Bursts.” Sarah and Louis alternate passages in a superb build that moves from soft to full band to pure acoustic sounds and harmonies. The song is a courageous opener, for they’re singing about things that most of the people in our vampire-and-tits-obsessed world would like to avoid. Louis Abbott described the work like this:
“The title refers to the sound and the image of an artillery shell exploding into a cluster of snow-drenched trees.…I’m also astounded by the sheer volume of gun related violent crimes throughout the world but in particular in the U.S. The lyric from ‘Tree Bursts’ was inspired by the idea of the effect that losing friends through violence, in particular during times of war or conflict has on young men and women. They are ‘the leaves that fall louder than backfire, all orange and Halloween red.'” (Source-Wikipedia, “Admiral Fallow”).
The second song is the explosive driver, “The Paper Trench,” which would be a kick to dance to in an open floor pub somewhere deep in the back streets of Glasgow. Not a band to back off, they treat us to another energetic piece, “Guest of the Government,” a song with pointed and insightful lyrics about the waste of life and energy we know as drug abuse. The powerful catchiness of this song has made it impossible for me to get it out of my head for weeks, so now it’s your turn:
Sarah and Louis come together again on the “Beetle in the Box,” a piece grounded in a steady dance beat and spare arrangement that allows you to appreciate the vocal duet. “Old Fools” is a more reflective piano-based number that gives us a bit of a breather before the fabulous sing-along folk anthem, “Isn’t This World Enough?” The line “All those living in splendor and in sunshine/Isn’t this world enough?” should be tattooed on every forearm attached to a person obsessed with first-world problems. “Brother” features toe-tapping beats and a rising and falling melodic line that beautifully carries the story of human disconnection.
“The Way You Were Raised” is my absolute favorite. I love the way its insistent rhythm, piano touches and dreamy flute mingle to create a soundscape with just the right amount of space to for Louis to relate the tale of his violent journey of self-discovery. In this song, the journey is an escape— the escape from the expectations and traditions of masculine pride and combative challenge:
‘What was that?’ as the stuff that I spout leaves my lips
There, a crack from behind from some cat with a death wish
And the twitch takes the trail south to my heels
To the homeless steel toe capped edge
And though hopped up on black juice with red eyes and fists
The sight of my future bout rids me of red mist . . .
Strength in numbers and width like two bears on a mouse
I give a thought to the organ that beats in my mouth
And say balls to a hurricane
I’ll toast to my health
Everyday it’s the battering of bones
It’s the saving of face
It’s the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised
All of us—even me with my delightfully tolerant and open-minded parents—have been shaped by the way we were raised. We get our all-important definition of “normal” through that experience: the cherished traditions, the do’s and don’ts, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Forging an identity separate from parental and traditional expectations is necessary to initiate the process of individuation, the path to becoming one’s true self. It takes courage to do that because we are all conditioned to seek approval from those who guide us, our peers and our families. “The Way You Were Raised” deals solely with the heavy expectations heaped upon men, but the concept is universal: we all have to face the choice of exercising the courage to be ourselves or go along to get along.
Tree Bursts in Snow is a strong, passionate, exciting and soul-level delightful work that should be celebrated by all. Let’s hope Louis avoids The Murdoch Trap and maintains his artistic integrity so we can hear more from this wonderful band in the near future.