Album Reviews

Phelan & Sheppard – Harps Old Master

(Leaf) UK release date: 25 September 2006

After three wonderful albums under the State River Widening moniker, hearing that Kieron Phelan and David Sheppard were going it alone during the hiatus of their main project offered up the prospect of a very appetising dish. When served however, the results are more Glyn from Big Brother than Gordon Ramsay.

State River Widening are still pretty much an unknown quantity it would have to be said. Yet finding three better structured and more captivating albums than their Early Music, Cottonhead and self-titled debut effort would be hard, such is their uniquely melodic blend of acoustics and electronica.

Coming two years after Cottonhead, Harps Old Master sees the creative duo behind SRW in a much more downbeat mood. The album opens with the solemn violins of Hazel Wand, a tune less than a minute in length but a portent of things to come. Broken In The Wrong Places offers more hope. Still very low-key folktronica, the track includes a beautiful acoustic section in the middle that reminds the listener of classic SWR. Yet, why the same theme has to continue for over three minutes is up for debate.

This is the duo’s second album, following on from 2002s O, Little Stars, and one of its most enchanting elements is the simple yet effective vocal contributions of Spanish singer Ines Naranjo. Her gorgeous la la la-ing lifts Weaving Song from the doldrums created by its mournful cello, while her random spoken Spanish words over the electronic ambience of Collapsing Cat and Anuncios Perfumados certainly spark an interest.

Other guests to appear on the album include The Willard Grant Conspiracy‘s Josh Hillman on strings and Laika‘s Guy Fixsen on trumpet. Fixsen makes an appearance on Oriental Star and his late-night sassy sound is one of the few plus points of a song that leaves the listener bored after taking so much of the same simple acoustic noodling for so long.

Being a big fan of State River Widening’s albums it is difficult to say it, but a large amount of this album does leave you reaching for the matchsticks to keep your eyes open. Even Tjarno, a song with wavery guitars and gorgeous violins, reminiscent of Mogwai‘s more reflective moments, becomes tedious after a while. Mogwai know when to stop or crank things up, Phelan Sheppard it seems do not.

The Plantagenet Whore, meanwhile, it more notable for its title than its musical content, sounding the same as Weaving Song but without the Spanish vocal. Water Clock and Lady Never City also can at best only be referred to as pretty background music. Parachute Seeds does include some lively acoustics in the vein of SRW but even after listening to this album five times it is difficult to offer much enthusiasm about it.

Now, where did I put my copy of Wire‘s Pink Flag? I think I need something to liven the senses.

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