Cousteau have lately been through the mill. Original songwriter Davey Ray Moor quit the band to concentrate on his own projects, and was followed out the door by the drummer and keyboardist.
The remaining Cousteau folk, including rugged baritone singer Liam McKahey, a stalwart of the building trade of late, renamed themselves Moreau briefly before reverting to their original name. In amongst all this was a variety of record labels. “We thought it was the end and we were all feeling really emotional,” says McKahey of Moor’s departure. “But after a few pints, we’d decided to carry on and do it (the songwriting) ourselves. It was sink or swim, and we decided to swim.”
All of which trials and tribulations mean that it’s especially pleasant to know their comeback record, Nova Scotia, loses none of the band’s trademark sound. Rather, the remaining members, with McKahey’s newfound talent for songwriting, have produced an album that’s little short of wonderful.
The keys to the project seem to be that McKahey’s voice identifies Nova Scotia with the two previous Cousteau albums. His rich, melancholic delivery, immediately reminiscent of Scott Walker, dominates this elegant recording’s every track.
But the familiar voice is backed up by the band’s sound. Cousteau’s music has frequently been compared to that of Tindersticks, and on Nova Scotia they remain grand exponents of dramatic, jazz-tinged and downbeat melodies effused with guitar and piano. Laconic moments – She’s Not Coming Back, Highly – have more than a little Lambchop about them.
Elsewhere, Walker’s songwriting and production methods are obvious influences on the eerily atmospheric PIA, which offers stark piano, glorious vocal harmonies and subtle guitar effects around the edges.
From a songwriting perspective, lead single Sadness – one of the most recently recorded – is hard to beat. Contrary to the title, the tempo is upbeat, and there’s even clapping for percussion. Paul Wigens’ drumming is pure Walker – this is the beat harnessed so successfully by The Divine Comedy, and McKahey’s baritone is unquestionably a match for that of Neil Hannon.
Here and there the record is so laid back it almost falls asleep, especially on Sometime and She’s Not Coming Back. But there are enough rockier moments – There She Goes being one – to balance it all out beautifully.
The band give the best of the balladeers a run for their merlot with Black Heart Of Mine, lyrically the standout track. “There’s no fight left in me / I long for the touch of a valkyrie / But no hero’s feast is waiting down below / This black heart of mine / is stained beyond redemption / But I’m hoping your love will shine / and you’ll make this one exception.” Dramatic yet personal, and the band fill out the soundscape every bit as subtly as The Bad Seeds do for Nick Cave‘s less raucous moments. They even finish with a rousing crescendo.
Nova Scotia is a breath of crisp Atlantic air, breezing aside wannabes and never-weres. Best listened to in candlelight with a bottle of red to hand, this dark, evocative and superbly executed record has class writ large right through it. Pour another glass of Sadness, curl up and enjoy.