(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Recording review - Smoke Fairies, Blood Speaks (2013)

Shadowy reflection remains open-ended

Like a stone dropped into inky black waters, there’s no recourse but to surrender and sink into Smoke Fairies’ murky swirl of hypnotic grooves. This is shadow music where voices from the subconscious interrupt idle musings, where meditative clarity is stripped down and revealed as obsession. Blood Speaks is a stunning collection of modern and retro psychedelia, moody pop, and folk rock sensibility. Echoes of older bands, such as Jefferson Airplane and It’s A Beautiful Day, bubble up through the solemn sounds of the Cowboy Junkies as Fairport Convention nod knowingly. The songs rely on pensive, layered arrangements to support the ghostly vocals, but each is a necessary part of the whole. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies almost merge into an amorphous entity as their guitars intertwine and their voices blend together. Their close harmonies recall Heart or Fleetwood Mac, but harnessed to a darker riptide. Their singing often drives the feel of the songs: a bruised, but detached Suzanne Vega sound on “Version of the Future” or a delicate Kate Bush warble on “Daylight.” The pair has a unique dynamic sense, less tied to volume than levels of energy and intensity.

Blood Speaks sets the hook immediately with the obsessive drone of “Let Me Know”. It’s driven and unsettled; the guitars throb against the slower swell of subliminal bass in the right speaker. The verse starts out with quiet defiance:
You’ve got the power to bring me down
But I’ve got some sense and I’m gonna let it go
I see you coming like a wave of stones
But my destruction is mine to own
But the chorus reveals the rotten core to that confidence. Like an insomniac’s vicious, circling thoughts, it’s a mantra of regret: “Let me know where I went wrong/ I want to know.

“Hideaway” is less damaged by love, but remains bittersweet. The gentle guitar sway on the verse is borrowed from Jefferson Airplane’s “Come Up the Years” while the singing leans towards Tori Amos and Kate Bush. The softer sections are bedecked with subtle details: light touches of keyboards and interlocking guitar lines build a beautiful rhythmic complexity while the vocal lines offer a taste of English folk. During the chorus intensity, strings and wordless background harmonies add to the disquiet. The tension between the lazy flowing verses and the clenching chorus accents the ambivalence in the lyrics, where relationships can keep fires alight but they tame a spirit’s wildness. Ultimately, though, the self-destructive weight of habit seems to lock the conflict in place.

Smoke Fairies have built their sound on a mix of American and English influences. Their time here, starting with a year-long relocation to New Orleans in 2002, led to recording with Jack White and breakout success at the 2010 South By Southwest in Austin. But the folk influences of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention shine through their work. Blood Speaks builds on the brooding sound of their earlier albums, but shifts away from the heavier blues vibe they’ve used in the past. “The Three Of Us” is the only holdout tune, with a mercurial slide guitar. Like Earl Greyhound’s hard classic-rock psychedelia, the deconstructed blues riffs color the piece, but it’s too rich to be pigeonholed. Davies and Blamire bring their paired voices closer then further apart as they present the Zen koan of the lyrics, where a shallow storyline delivers a set of deeper philosophical questions. Answers, of course, remain elusive. All of their songs seem to thrive on a lack of resolution.

Unlike a lot of spacy psychedelia, Smoke Fairies don’t slip into self-indulgent lead guitar posturing or epic, meandering sonic excursions. Instead, each song is immersed in shadow, a morsel of twilight texture that invites reflection, if not illumination.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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