Cross traditional Irish alt folk with US folk miserabilists such as Smog and the result is this minimal, pared-down, fragile slice of singer-songwriting that no iPod should be without. It may be a style of music that’s ten-a-penny these days, but that only makes artists such as Adrian Crowley, who stand out from the crowd, all the more impressive.
Opening track Bless Our Tiny Hearts is bleak and beautiful, as is the third offering, Star Of The Harbour, both recalling the archetypal forlorn troubadour strumming a lonely guitar on a sea wall as the storm clouds gather. In between, These Icy Waters adds more instruments to the mix to brighten things up a bit.
The songs slip from solo acoustic to more layered offerings with aid where appropriate from musicians including Marja Tuhkanen on violin, the ever-worthwhile James Yorkston on additional vocals, clarinet, concertina and guitar, Sinead Nic Gearailt on harp, Katie Ellis on cello and Thomas Haugh on drums.
Crowley’s helpers never intrude, nor take over completely, simply boosting songs such as Walk On Part to a level above just another offering from a dead-pan bloke with a battered guitar. Here in particular the ability of the additional instruments to echo the cruel waves of a cold sea make the song rather than break it on the underlying rocks. The slow, foreboding strings of Electric Eels also deserve a mention.
Crowley’s real talent shines through on songs such as Temporary Residence (probably the album’s best) and Victoria, which manage to sound sparse and full at the same time while the most rounded songs, such as Harmony Row, sound more sinister than upbeat. The music is cold and bleak, perfect for its midwinter release date. Imagine Nick Cave hosting a wine and cheese New Year’s Eve party in a particularly bleak cove on the Irish coast as the ghost of Nick Drake looks on, an image continued through the instrumental Theft By Starlight’s sonorous piano.
As the album progresses, Leaving The Party is almost cheery by comparison, a song you can at least imagine slow waltzing to, and yet it’s also one of the ones that owes the biggest debt to the darker US alt-folkies, morphing into one of the album’s saddest laments before Crowley’s done. Penultimate track Brother At Sea on the other hand is, genuinely, more upbeat.
This is Crowley’s fourth studio album, following on from 2004’s A Northern Country, 2005’s A Strange Kind, and When You Are Here You Are Family. His music hasn’t changed direction after the relatively long lay-off, but he’s certainly come back no weaker. Think Smog, think Bonnie Prince Billy, think The Decemberists if they didn’t have a sense of humour or, closer to home, Irish troubadours such as Declan O’Rourke.
And then to round it all off, there’s the final, beautiful, fragile, delicate title track. Perfectly balanced, with crashing chords beating in time to the waves against the shore, it would be greedy to ask for a better beginning to the musical treasures 2008 might wash up for us.