Twee-pop is one of those genre classifications that quite clearly wasn’t coined by one of its own practicioners. The very sound of the term conjures imagery of precious, folksy groups outfitted with violins, banjos, and excessively bright-eyed singers who act as though topics like love and world peace have never before been entertained.
For a while, it looked as though Charlie Fink and the London-based Noah And The Whale could come to embody the best elements of the genre while escaping its cutesier inclinations. The group’s debut album, last year’s Peaceful The World Lays Me Down, was a pleasant surprise – Fink’s indie-rock tremolo endearingly wrapped around the silky vocals of Laura Marling on breezy, hummable ditties like Rocks and Daggers and the shoulda-been-a-hit wonderment of 5 Years Time.
Unfortunately, on its follow-up the band has opted to drop the cheer and instead wallow in slow, brooding sorrow songs. Despite its optimistic title, The First Days Of Spring is filled to the gills with sentiments of loneliness (My Broken Heart) and defeatism (I Have Nothing), placed on top of a monochromatic batch of sluggishly-strummed coffeeshop acoustics.
And while some singer-songwriters deliver their strongest material at their saddest – Joni Mitchell‘s blue brilliance and Iron & Wine‘s weary bedroom folk come most immediately to mind – Fink is simply no fun when he’s down. “I’m a new baby weeping,” he sings on I Have Nothing, with all the self-seriousness he can muster. “I’m a flower…. that without love will wilt and die.” Bummer. On Peaceful’s upbeat numbers, Fink’s wavering voice sounded like Neutral Milk Hotel‘s Jeff Mangum, with a dash of spoken-word artist thrown in for added quirk. Throughout The First Days Of Spring, his idiosyncratically cracking pipes lack emotional heft, with the vocals coming off as frail and almost pubescent in their stark vulnerability.
Much of that teenaged effect is a function of the lyrics – dreary, simplistic ‘Dear Diary’ fluff that features such insights as “Everything that I love has gone away” (Stranger) and “I’ve been looking for hope these days/love’s not finding me.” (My Broken Heart) Everybody loves a good emo-folk tune, but even the at-times inventive instrumentation ultimately fails to make up for Fink’s fluffy, self-pitying words.
Indeed, the more orchestral-minded compositions are the most intriguing of the bunch, albeit still inconsistent. The two brassy, strings-laden instrumental numbers are fun if a bit pompous, while Love is an Orchestra is an uplifting two-minute jaunt that showcases a choir singing the incongrously cheery refrain “If you gotta run, run from hope.” The title track, meanwhile, builds steadily and propulsively, with fluttery strings and simple guitar swirls careening to an unexpectedly majestic climax of clashing instruments.
Perhaps the most noticeable change on The First Days Of Spring is the absence of Marling, whose Mercury-nominated debut album Fink produced. On Peaceful The World Lays Me Down, her exuberant voice proved a gentle but essential counterpoint to Fink’s occasionally abrasive tenor. Without it, his second-rate voice is forced into a headlining role that it can’t quite fill. Tracks like Love of an Orchestra and Blue Skies are helped by lush choral arrangements, but only barely. In this context, Fink’s unending gripes about the pains of being alone are ones that the listener can actually understand. Bring back Marling and spice up the lyrical themes, and we might be back on track. At the moment, though, it appears as though this is one twee-pop album that simply doesn’t pop.