Years back, on Scotland’s Isle of Bute, a schoolyard fistfight erupted between then enemies Keiron Mason and Al Shields. Skip ahead to a chance meeting between the two scrappers on Edinburgh’s Princes Street in 2005, add a handful of multi-instrumentalists, and you’ve got Ardentjohn, an expansive, relaxed, and warmly familiar-sounding six-piece. And from the sound of their first full-length, On The Wire, the grown-up Mason and Shields take out their angst in plucked acoustics, wistful strings, and pleasantly crooned balladry, rather than getting all rowdy.
On The Wire rolls and sweeps, rarely straying from its laid-back swoon. Mason’s voice calls up images of a young James Taylor (were he Scottish), or a less inebriated Conor Oberst. At times, he sounds almost identical to Toad The Wet Sprocket‘s Glen Phillips (especially on Colours Of The Day), and this is certainly a good thing. In fact the band as a whole can be compared favourably to the sound achieved on Toad’s Dulcinea, perhaps channeled through Seabear or Matt Pond PA, circa Several Arrows Later.
The acoustic guitar is often at the forefront here, and it’s strummed with a precarious mix of careful precision and heartfelt abandon. The drums are often brushed, and the bass drum sounds big against so much musical space. Violins and cellos snake and meander throughout, often adding a sense of grandeur to the coffeehouse sound, and clean, reverberating electric guitar accents fill it all out nicely, never arching into full-blown rock ‘n’ roll territory (though, the effect is perhaps attempted on the slightly distorted tremolo bit in Follow Me).
The album opens with the lush and beautiful All That We Need, and the aching acapella line, “Land of green, sea of blue, you’re here in my heart. Close the door on the world, stay where you are,” before the music gradually builds with the slow-motion quality of a glacial migration and the subtlety and sweep of a long-awaited veiled advance from a lifelong love interest. Fleeting Moments is tinged with country and western overtones, plunking and twanging a bit, though never losing its reserved charm or sense of purpose in all the rolling drums and telecasting.
The album’s first single Home is simply lovely, and a bit of a swaying two-step.� Imagine slow dancing in the safe glow of a warming fire with that same lifelong love interest while a storm rages outside the door after you’ve survived a journey of unspeakable distance and hardship. Mason sings, “We’re going home, home, home. Home where our lovers wait,” with such jovial abandon, that it’s difficult not to feel the lyric on some level.
One Step Behind rocks hardest of all the tracks here, but it never quite escapes the mid-’90s jangle of early Counting Crows – not that this is a bad thing at all. It is, however, a welcome change of pace, and its sound suits Ardentjohn well with all its driving drums and lightly distorted guitars (though the wah-wah pedaled guitar solo does feel like a bit of a mis-step).
On The Wire is an easy listen, and the perfect album for all those lazy Sunday afternoons or those quiet afternoon teas. It certainly merits repeated listens, and seems capable of becoming an old friend. But the album’s sound is just so comfortable as to be largely uninspiring – which is not to say uninspired – and, well… expected. Ardentjohn have demonstrated that they’ve got the chops to craft exquisitely laid-back pop songs, but it would be nice to see them stepping out from under the eaves a bit. Perhaps next time round.