Ralegh Long’s discography to date consists of two EPs: Sprawl, which was released in 2011, and The Gift, from 2012. Both included tracks that were improvised and recorded in one take: a dubious thing for a singer-songwriter to admit, but Long clearly has a remarkable ear and a powerful sense of a song as a whole, since you’d be hard pressed to identify which tracks were made up on the spot.
Two and a half years later his debut album arrives, and that gap is deceptive. It certainly doesn’t sound as though Hoverance took two and a half years to conceive, write and record. That might come across as critical but it’s not: Hoverance doesn’t feel rushed, but it does feel very much of a certain place, and of a certain time.
So what is that place, and what is that time? The album is presented as being in the English pastoral tradition, and that goes some way towards locating it, but there is more to it than that. Although the album was recorded in London, Long retreated to the countryside to write it. But this is not all rolling hills, golden fields and blue skies. The beauty that those clichés imply is certainly present, but alongside the romantic elements there are signs of a more mundane landscape.
For a start, this is a very slight album, only running to half an hour. Long is clearly not going for grand scale, or a sense of the sublime. The instrumentation is also restrained: there might be warm currents of strings and woodwind at times, but the songs are primarily led along by a very honest and unpretentious sounding piano. And the lyrics sometimes reference the rural landscape, but are generally more universal than that.
Long has been held up being part of a revival of the seventies singer-songwriter tradition that’s currently underway, and he’s been placed alongside American counterparts like Natalie Prass and Father John Misty. Long might be harking back to same decade, and the slide guitar that’s a feature throughout Hoverance might be a nod towards Americana, but in fact he’s doing something rather different to those artists. The soul and blues traditions that they draw on are quite absent here, shunned in favour of folk, baroque pop and maybe an implicit allusion or two towards a very English psychedelia.
The comparisons with Nick Drake and early Todd Rundgren are closer to the mark. The wistfulness of those artists is there in songs like No Use (which also featured on The Gift EP) and All The Leaves Are Gone. But there are other moods too, some more humble, some wilder. Opening track Gulls Hovering, which inspires the album’s title, is almost a vignette; at just under two minutes, it’s like a sketch for a landscape painting. Opening with a string section and Long’s unfussy vocals, and ending with a rising flute, it recalls, in a strange way, Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. The guitar-based instrumental The Lizard, meanwhile, could a cut from one of Matt Berry’s somewhat eerie psych-folk explorations.
The final track, Beginning Of The World, is another improvised piece, and it beings with just Long’s voice – at times he’s a dead ringer for his friend Darren Hayman – and his piano, and a slightly lo-fi atmosphere that’s no doubt explained by the fact that he recorded it at his home. But slide guitar is overdubbed as the song develops, and this almost represents Hoverance in microcosm: at its heart it’s an album made up of fresh, simple songs, but they are formed into something fuller and more meaningful through judicious use of melodies, phrases and allusions.