Hitch-hiking around the music world can be a perilous thing. The outer reaches are always harder to get to and when you do get there, you can never be guaranteed of finding anything you didn’t know already. The Orkneys, then, where Half Cousin originate, couldn’t be further off the map for the London-centric music biz, so it’s a good thing that their label Gronland (usually better known for leftfield electronica and Neu! reissues) stopped to give them a lift.
Coming from the vantage point of the outsider provides Half Cousin the benefit of being able to musically magpie the wonder of half-remembered, half-imagined moods and music we all knew existed before real life got in the way.
Half Cousin are Kevin Cormack and musical partner Jimmy Hogarth at the core of the folk’n’roll four-piece, but they sound like a street orchestra with the breadth of instrumentation seeping into these tunes. Amidst the traditional band instruments are items selected either for their sound or their history, such as the old blue bin that Cormack took from a warehouse he once worked at, sticking coat hangers into guitars, his uncles accordion, and a 1981 four track recorder.
This belief in the home-made experimentation with sound seeps into their influences, leaping from the fireside shadows, like the skewed backwood blues of Tom Waits, the industrial discordance Einst�zende Neubauten, and the DIY instruments of Harry Partch, but Half Cousin have enough fuel of their own.
Despite such sonic experimentation. The Function Room is not some sonic geek project, it is a beautiful, melodic, mainly acoustic journey that tugs the ear, teases the heart and baffles the brain. Their determined perversity of instrumentation, subject and delivery is to be championed, and savoured as each bleep bursts from acoustic loveliness to conjure up sweet musical alchemy. If there were any category to even approach Half Cousin, it would do so warily as that of Folk Rock played with cattle prods and buckets.
Singer Kevin Cormack lulls and coos soothingly, in a semi-narcotic haze of phase and harmony amid the discordant clatter and fuzz of the junk funk swooping around the usual constant of a gently plucked acoustic guitar. Like the fragments washed up and sand-blasted on the beaches of Orkney, or the orphaned instruments used in its making, these are songs to be wondered over and have histories created for them. Cormack’s Scottish burr and their acoustic spaciousness could make them a more countrified and less grumpy Arab Strap, but more intent on dreaming than shagging.
Lyrically The Function Room is full of glimpses of characters, half-heard stories, lending an abstracted, other-worldliness to the world of Half Cousin. Mrs Pilling takes a bizarre love affair between Mrs Pilling and the Pig Boy to a beautiful construct of spoken asides with sleepy accordion and sax providing backing. Country Cousin has the rustic punk clatter of organic pop in need of a good oil.
Hindsight is a beautiful rolling love song, slightly tinged with the cynicism of retrospect. Fidgeting horn sections drop in and out, as melodies unfold to reveal crafted songs of depth that beguile, comfort and are utterly compelling. Even when instrumentals such as KDK 12 shimmer into view, to create a pure lounge track via a soundworld of radio tunings, and the Orkney Delta blues of Blue Rain could have been plucked from one of Nick Drake‘s instrumental passages, it is further enchantment rather than album filler. An apt cover of The Beatles‘ Girl brings things to a close with a shaky saw solo and sonic swooshes to take this humble tune up out into space.
These are gems of tunes caught up in amber like rare insects in an entomologist’s collection. So before you go burrowing back to the familiar landscapes of either geography or music, look to the edges of the maps, you may well relish the journey for a long time to come.