This eponymous album marks a welcome return for Smoke Fairies, albeit one that nearly didn’t happen. After the release of 2012’s Blood Speaks, Jessica Davies told fellow Smoke Fairy Katherine Blamire that she wasn’t sure that they should continue with their endeavours.
It is hard to make a living as a musician at the best of times, but even after well received albums and support slots with Bryan Ferry and Laura Marling, the pair still had to find time for music alongside making ends meet with temp jobs. After some consideration, the idea of not playing together was inconceivable; Davies and Blamire are not just a band, but pretty much life long friends. It is the music, they say, that “is their life” and that really, there was no other option but to carry on.
They turned their attention to the mechanics of the band, and the result is an album that doesn’t follow the paths of previous Smoke Fairies releases. This time around they use different instrumentation (synths are a major step forward), and rather than harmonising their vocals they are operating as two separate individuals (though this is actually quite hard to discern). They have also sought to strip everything back and reject any notions of their former “comfy” songwriting techniques. The result is an album that is more direct yet somehow, still ephemeral.
There are a couple of songs that reference the almost-breakdown of the duo. The first is album opener We Saw Birds which Davies wrote as a kind of apology to Blamire. It possesses an upbeat and positive quality not just in the delicate and almost poppy vocal line but in the scampering drumbeat and jaunty piano lines too. The Last Time meanwhile is a much darker assessment of a relationship breakdown. Whilst it might not be about the Smoke Fairies themselves, it is hard not to draw that conclusion. Lines like “Put a match to it, and let it burn”, and “tie a knot to it, like you mean stay” suggest a relationship at the end of the road, burned out, betrayed and used up. The quite beautiful chorus of “I’ll let the fire between us die for the very last time” provides an idea of what might have happened had the friendship and music of the Smoke Fairies not continued. Thankfully, the bridges were merely singed, not burned entirely.
Eclipse Them All is a sparse and introspective track, there’s little more than an undulating synth line and the snap of snare drum to drive it along. Instead, it relies on the wonderful vocal interplay of Davies and Blamire to make it work, a tactic that pays off beautifully. This isn’t always the case, sometimes the decision to keep things basic mean that these skeletal arrangements just don’t quite have enough about them to hold the attention but when it works, Davies and Blamire exploit the delicate nature of the songs to create some truly spectral moments.
The opening of Waiting For Something To Begin for example is the sound of ’60s West Coast spirits twisting from the ends of smouldering joss sticks. The brittle construction of Koto (spidery guitars, delicate piano and drum machine with knackered batteries) coupled with imagery of piers in the distance and shut down fairgrounds at the seaside give a bleak outlook reminiscent of Susan Hill’s stories in the collection A Bit Of Singing And Dancing.
Thankfully there’s the B52s style pop-thrust (as thrusting as this album gets) of Want It Forever to balance things out a little; here, there’s a positivity that is palpable and an acknowledgement of what it is the pair are trying to achieve. This might not be the album that sees them break through, but it is a fine body of work from a pair of musicians embracing the thing they love most.