By Chris Helme
2012 has been a great year. I've been to memorable local gigs (Live at Leeds, Midlake, The Wailers, Damien Jurado, Megafaun), added brilliant new releases to the bowing shelves (Fossil Collective, Dry the River, Straylings) and met people fervently involved in the local music scene. These are all good things. I can't get enough new music. It gets me as giddy now as when I saved up in my Mr.T money box (coin slot in his Mohawk!) until I had enough to buy more. I still buy loads now but I'm lucky that people send music my way too, so I get to hear stuff that would otherwise pass me by. This is a very good thing.
I was never a fan of The Seahorses and their big singles did little for me. Perhaps I was too busy mourning the passing of The Stone Roses, struggling to get on with The Second Coming and trying to connect with new music to worry about what John Squire did next. Whatever it was, I was underwhelmed by their output and generally becoming frustrated by the state of "indie" back then. Skip forward to today then and you'll understand why I didn't go looking for this album or expect it to find me. But it did. Without wishing to be unkind this album definitely falls into the category of stuff I would have missed.
Until I heard "The Rookery" I didn't know that now was the perfect time for me to hear former Seahorses frontman Chris Helme's music. It seems we've both headed in a similar direction from our indie roots to find ourselves looking for something more developed yet understated, more pensive but easy going, more grown up though just as passionate. I'm still an indie kid at heart but whatever force steered me towards good music and away from manufactured, formulaic pop in my youth is still there, nowadays leading me mostly to folk and Americana.
The album opens with "Pickled Ginger", a folksy instrumental which sets out Helme's rural stall from the off, conjuring images of a time gone by; a pre-industrialised innocence, pooh sticks, stories handed down, countryside idlers fishing and poaching; an authentic nostalgia. No doubt inspired in no small part by the remote location chosen for the recording, tucked away in the Yorkshire Dales, the sound achieved is fused somewhere between traditional British folk and the dreaminess of Koji Kondo's Zelda soundtracks, resulting in a warm and inviting welcome. Quite a surprise start from an album I was doubtful of - it left me wondering where else "The Rookery" would take me.
There are shifts in style throughout but as stark as these differences are there's no sense that any of the songs don't belong in the one place. No one style jostles for your attention and the changes affect a creative balance, add depth and show an artist content and confident to share the range he has to offer. On tracks like "Longway Round" Helme's characteristically strong vocals are instantly recognisable whereas on the likes of "Darkest Days" he shows an adaptability for softer moments. "Darkest Days" heads along the dusty road of contemporary Americana blended with Scott Walker style grandeur and the string arrangements add a measured melancholy to some beautiful melodies. "Set in Stone" has a wonderful ambling feel to it and shows that when he wants to, Helme lets the emotion in his songs come from a more personal subject. This is a simple song but the lyrics and strings couple to make something more potent as a sum than perhaps their parts would have you expect.
Elsewhere on "The Rookery" Helme's voice and the strings work around and over each other creating poignant laments and soothing ballads. The gentle breeze of Americana is revisited in "Planer" with simple and achingly beautiful vocal work and harmonies in the chorus. Again there's more stunning arrangement to this song and if I was pushed for a top pick from the album it's only really bettered by the brilliant "The Spindle and the Cauldron". With a low-fi Beck feel, almost like a sedated Devil's Haircut, it grows into a powerful ballad of almost Mariachi proportions. The song blends seamlessly into "Blindeye", another brilliant piece, which continues to build with more woven layers and high production. No doubt the quality at play here is testament to Helme's work with producer, Sam Forrest (Nine Black Alps). The result the pair attains speaks of a learned craft and skilful application of the technology to create the sound and character of the album. You only have to hear the climax to "Blindeye" to see what I'm getting at.
"Pleased" with its brushed snares and lazy feel evokes a smokey saloon and more of a blues vibe than you'll find elsewhere. A rumbling bass gives off an attitude and a sense of danger that adds more texture to the album and perhaps shines light on more of Helme's influences in his writing. It verges on going a yard too far for ambience and drone towards the end but that said, it put me in mind of Ry Cooder film scores, which is no bad thing. Sometimes dramatic is good. It certainly doesn't harm this tune any more than the experimentation harms "Blindeye".
There is more traditional rock fun with "Daddies Farm" dressed as it is in the finery of an unashamedly catchy chorus. It appeals - just as pleasingly as the folk vibe does - to a different part of my brain, to the place where connecting flight between stadium era Status Quo and Band of Horse's "NW Apartment" are chartered. I guarantee once you're on to your second go with "The Rookery" this will be the first chorus you join in with. It is fun, uplifting, simple - who said fun had to be clever - and shows again a different, and more carefree side to Helme's influences and the ideas he's had in the writing of the album.
It can't all be good surely? Ok, I'll balance it out a bit. "Summer Girl" reminded me, in parts, of Verve style indie sing-a-longs and if I was pushed to find a low point, then this is it. Not every song on an album has to change the world though, of course. Although this isn't such a bad song, my disappointment probably lies in the fact that it sounds like I expected the whole album to sound before it arrived. So whilst I like being right I find it hard to be enthused by this one as it doesn't seem to strive into new territory like we see everywhere else on the album.
The closer on "The Rookery" is "Good to be in Love" and as final tracks go it's right up there. There's a suggestion that the song is building to something big and beautiful but part of its true beauty is that it avoids the obvious. The restraint and control, rather than finishing with a flourish of crashing cymbals, guitars and orchestration; shows that delicacy and refinement still leads to it finishing on a high and managing to hit the mark. It definitely has done that for me.
Like Tom Waits singing Ryan Adams if they had both had the good fortune to grow up in Yorkshire.