Alexi Murdoch will sound familiar, even if you don’t recognise the name. The London-born, Scottish/Greek/French/American-bred singer-songwriter’s trademark lilt has been sampled pretty much everywhere, providing the soundtrack to 2009 film Away We Go. Having made a name for himself stateside supporting the likes of Alanis Morissette, his latest studio offering is generally a pleasant, contemplative record that hits the right notes.
Towards The Sun is simple in composition – often falling away to the sparse pairing of a guitar with Murdoch’s unpretentious vocals. Yet that simplicity masks sophistication. This is more than just background music. On the title track, Murdoch sets out his stall, complimenting his usual off-beat strumming with piano chords, rising up to emphasise his vocal clarity. The faintest whisper of wind adds to the wistful romanticism. This is clear, expansive and easy on the ear.
Like his music, Murdoch’s vocals are straight and simple, but not vacuously so, and not without variety. At Your Door sees the introduction of cheeky grace notes bringing out the Scottish in him. Meanwhile, they turn huskier towards the end of the album as the lyrical focus grows darker and more wistful. The difference is subtly effective.
The Light (Her Hands Were Leaves) is a real highlight. The interesting tonality, with almost oriental touches slipped in, captures the bittersweet nature of the song. The occasional tiptoe into a minor key contrasts the ‘safe’ childlike repetitive structure of the lyrics. Is ‘the light’ a symbol of death or freedom (or both?) for the family members in the song? At the risk of reading too deeply, this is an album to provoke thought, and this is the track that does it best.
Flashes of lyrical creativity abound. On cyclical, jangling Some Day Soon, stand-out couplets impress: “Cos where I live it gets dark at night/the kind of dark eats up the light” – perhaps twee for some, but the originality of the metaphor is admirable.
The poetry returns for final track Crinan Wood: “The music came to me, it came across the sound// How you laughed and shone and danced a circle ’round.” The title refers to an ancient forest in the Western Isles of Scotland, and earthy twangs of the guitar strings and lyrical warmth give a natural feel to this reminiscence on youth.
The album isn’t perfect. Hymnlike Slow Revolution is a case in point – the dreariness with which Murdoch sings “all of this matter soon won’t matter much anymore” is apt and skillful, yet he cuts fast and loose with the rhythm, forcing out miles of lyrics where the plodding instrumentals give him an inch. There’s artistry to this stream-of-consciousness effect, but at times it just doesn’t sit right. Vocally, too, there’s the odd slip. The power of his voice is occasionally found wanting, and at times the long held notes fail to go anywhere.
The biggest concern, though, is that at just seven tracks (under 38 minutes), Towards The Sun is light on content. Thankfully, it’s more an album to savour than a flash in the pan, but it does feel like it’s over too soon.
Overall, it’s easy on the ear. But to stick it on in the background would be to miss the point. It’s carefully constructed and lyrically intelligent, albeit with a few imperfections and a need for a few more tracks. But most importantly, there’s something homely in the simple quality of Alexi Murdoch’s voice, and Towards The Sun is the perfect platform for it.