Album Reviews

Trembling Bells and Bonnie Prince Billy – The Marble Downs

(Honest Jons) UK release date: 9 April 2012

When a band talks of the “craft of songwriting” you know one of two things; they are either basking in buckets of their own pretension for their vapid rehash of their heroes’ past glories, or they are dedicated champions and restless creatives channelling the wheat from the chaff for the good of humanity’s inner ear.

Glasgow’s Trembling Bells approach their fourth album (in as many years) with a strident optimism rarely seen by a current band, after the collaborative baton was grasped with vigour by fellow creative dynamo Americana veteran Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Palace Brothers/Songs/Music) and fall happily into the latter of the two camps.

Where other collaborators may ‘guest’ on each others’ songs (sharing a writing credit here, a background twang there) Oldham gets deep amidst it courtesy of Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson, who had the vision to see the potential dramatic frisson between the vocal stylings of his own band’s Lavina Blackwell and Oldham.

The ominously titled opener I Made A Date (With An Open Vein) sounds like a weary mariachi beamed in from a ’70s spaghetti western replete with female warble and wigged-out electric guitar before the twinned vocal interplay begins a suitably biblical rain-lashed epiphany.

I Can Tell You’re Leaving’s joyous bounce is the most obvious (albeit skewed) echo of the Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood pairing – or even Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan at a push. Both utilise the sweet/sour contrast of angelic, innocent female rubbed against the grain of a seasoned rogue male cursed in life but drawn together in love. In this case the classically-trained Trembling Bells singer throws stark contrast against Oldham’s ramshackle high pitched vocal, but amidst such a rich empathic musical backdrop it blends like fine whisky.

Genres tend to go astray and intermingle without fear of muddying the waters; so what if a bit of country twang rubs against a wall of psych guitar? Because soon enough it will give way to a folk vocal set against some bubblegum pop backing. But when simplicity speaks so effectively, as on the earthily bawdy and scathing honesty in My Husband’s Got No Courage featuring Oldham and Blackwall unaccompanied, words alone do their emotional damage.

It’s in stark contrast to the psych-drone Western stride of Riding that struts (Oldham) and entreats (Blackwall) in a push-pull, see-saw. But this is no mere po-faced excursion in musical back-slapping, as demonstrated with the evident humour on the positively mediaevel Ferrari In A Demolition Derby. How lines such as “Your love is like a butterfly… just responds to green paper and blue skies… the heart is on treacherous terrain, a Ferrari in a demolition derby” can be sung without a snigger only makes it all the more human. This collaboration mines a rich vein of biblical referencing, set to physical failings, yearnings and emotional fuck-ups, but all delivered with a rich beauty.

What other album would feature influences as diverse as poet Dorothy Parker (her Excursion To Assonance set to music), whose sparse piano balladry pushes the cracked high waiver of Oldham’s vocal into a lovely new backdrop that seems to drift in and out of sync, before being tethered by the reassured Blackwall vocal, and The Bee Gees in the form of a cover of Robin Gibb’s Lord Bless All, with its hymn-like qualities teased between the two vocalists before obliterating into psychedelic breakdown? That gives some note of this album’s creative kudos. It all amounts to a collaboration enrichingly beneficial to both sides – and to the listener.

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More on Trembling Bells
Trembling Bells & Bonnie Prince Billy – Bonnie Bells Of Oxford
Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self
Trembling Bells and Bonnie Prince Billy – The Marble Downs
Trembling Bells – The Constant Pageant
Trembling Bells – Abandoned Love