What goes well with trumpets? The word ‘judicious’. See, a blast of brass is fine for laughs, but no one wants a horn section shoved up their Zutons. And while peppering the familiar with off-kilter cornets will score you a slot on Later… with Jools Holland, no one really wants it on their iPod Shuffle. So someone needs to have a word with Maia – because the Huddersfield four-piece have branded their second album ‘sci-fi folk’, and there’s more than one unexpected toot.
The good news is, the unexpected works. Pepper Stars is ‘folk’ in the mandolin/ukulele/world music aesthetic kind of way, and yes, there are one or two crooning male harmonies – but that’s really it. It’s not an album built on Mumford And Sons-tainted, brainless bluegrass footstompers. And neither are there homely tales, woven maudlin over acoustic reveries. In their place are quirky odes to sulphurous space-rock (in the whispery, fingerpicking of Dear Io); galloping existentialism (the raucous country romp of More Strangely Than the Moon); and tender serenades to the sun (as in the slightly fey, Antony-esque vocal of Towards The Onion). And while the sound of strummed acoustics, cajon and harp is unmistakeably rootsy, there’s a husky resolve in Tom Clegg’s voice that’s closer to the sombre rock of Nick Drake; there’s a quirky, new wave irreverence that looks to Talking Heads and the gentler punk of Television Personalities; and, far from home-spun yarns, the oddball ambience of the album’s astronomical bent lends the whole affair more than a whiff of MGMT. Whatever genre Maia started with, they left it far behind a long, long time ago.
And then there are the trumpets. If at times, you may recognise any of the influences above, Joe Haig’s sporadic blasts mean you’ve still heard nothing like this. Skilfully done, and tastefully deployed, the brass doesn’t run amok – even if you feel the rest has been positioned around it. Forthcoming single The Grandfather Plan, for instance, has tinges of plaintive introspection not unlike the softer edges of Grandaddy – but deployed atop the yearning mariachi of Haig’s trumpet, the whole thing is transported to some kind of Lucha Reyes-tragedy. It’s surprising, sometimes irksome, but mostly beautiful.
So what goes well with trumpets? For Maia, it’s life, the universe and everything. Pepper Stars is an expansive, eclectic listen that may be rooted in folk, but branches off wilfully – and flourishes. It’s at once strange, endearing, bold and intricate and, while not everything they’ve tried here has worked, Maia have, wonderfully, unmistakeably, created something all of their own.