Give Iain Archer a pat on the back for persistence. He’s been trying to be a recognised solo artist in his own right since the 1990s. He seemed to have all but given up by the turn of the millennium. But a brief stint with Snow Patrol, during which he was awarded the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, apparently convinced him to give it all another crack.
His 21st century albums have, to date, not been particularly well-received either. Flood The Tanks and Magnetic North were mostly greeted with indifferent shrugs, even with the latter album’s Canal Song featuring on girly-girl hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy.
The problem is that Archer is determined, in the face of all criticism, to pursue a sound that is folk-esque and ‘ethereal’. To quote his press release, To The Pine Roots is all about: “The whisper of instantly recalled melodies, the burring of an age-old harmonium, the ghostly reverb…” You get the idea.
What it’s actually like is the thousand other male artists out there who spent too much time listening to Nick Drake growing up, have witnessed the recent success of Sufjan Stevens et al, and have decided to get folky with it.
For Archer, it’s an outfit that just doesn’t fit. At the lower range and at low volumes his voice becomes a warbling, out of tune mess. Lyrically, he’s trying too hard, as is evident on opener The Acrobat, where he speculates that Newton would be confused by the eponymous tumbler. Unless it was a tumbler of absinthe, it’s not likely to cause the legend too many problems.
It’s a shame, because when he takes a few steps into country, pairing plink-plonk guitar with bluesy harmonica, particularly on eight-minute epic Avalanche, Archer actually gets some pretty good results. After all, this is close to what he did with Snow Patrol: guitar music with fairly good riffs and a dash of heartache.
It’s obviously not a formula that Archer is content with, however.On To The Pine Roots he seems instead to respond to moments when things work well with a blindly panicked move against type. So Everest is followed by Frozen Lake, on which he seems to be doing his best Chad VanGaalen impression. It’s not very good – VanGaalen’s voice soars in the upper register, while Archer’s is as full of cracks as that damn lake.
All in all, To The Pine Roots is a bit of a sad affair, if not tragic in a certain way. If Archer just stuck to what he is really good at, he could make a record that, if not hugely distinctive, would at least be fairly enjoyable. The irony is that in trying so hard to work against his natural abilities he makes himself depressingly average.