“From a distance,” according to no less an authority than the RSPB, “the noisy chattering magpie appears black and white. However, take a closer look and you’ll notice a subtle blue and green sheen to their appearance.”
And so it is with the debut album by PicaPica, whose name comes from the Latin designation for the oft-unfairly-maligned bird; there are layers and complexities to reward careful, close attention, but which never detract from the whole’s natural beauty when seen at a glimpse.
At the heart of the band’s music is the vocal interplay between their two vocalists, singer-songwriters Samantha Whates and Josienne Clarke, a Radio 2 Folk Awards recipient. Having met on the London folk scene, by the time they formed PicaPica the two had already been collaborating for a number of years, and it shows.
Rarely sounding less than stunning, the pair play off each other, making the most of their voices’ alternately joyous and more mournful timbres, harmonising like they’re finishing each others’ thoughts. Fleshing all this out, but never dominating the spectrum, are the guitars and keyboards of Adam Beattie (another regular on the same scene, with a few of his own solo albums) and bass, loops and soundscapes from producer Sonny Johns.
It’s a blend which captivated Geoff Travis at Rough Trade Records, who released the band’s EP Spring And Shade in 2017 (almost leaping from his seat to discuss it with this writer at that year’s Independent Label Market). A delicate but dark, simple but sonically rich 15 minutes, that record’s promise is more than fulfilled by Together And Apart.
The album is bookended by the deconstructed, expressionistic title track – like a freeform Free Design – and the sweet, sad Stones, with call-and-response vocals, and organ which ebbs and flows like the waves which swell towards the song’s own shoreline. Inbetween, Whates and Clarke’s voices build in intensity through Sucker Punch, swoop and swerve through the weightless On The Wing – bass buoying like the breeze, Seb Rochford’s (Polar Bear, Patti Smith) drums skittering and fluttering – and add thrilling textures to Teeth & Chin and the two-part Opposite Song.
There are playful moments: the almost-showtune snippets Family, Friends & Lovers and The Weather, or Seesaw’s nimble sunshine pop-psych. And there are more ragged, anxious ones: the urgent, defiant Cast In Stone (“You didn’t break me / I’ve never been strong”) or Village Kids, a quietly frantic reworking of a song from Whates’ own Dark Nights Make For Brighter Days (2011).
According – again – to no less an an authority than the RSPB, magpies “seem to be jacks of all trades,” whose “attitude has won them few friends”. Together And Apart, on the other hand, similarly diverse and many-hued, should win PicaPica plenty.