In recent years the ‘folk music’ label has grown increasingly elastic. It’s been stretched to encompass the likes of Iron & Wine, Bon Iver and Kings Of Convenience – acts deemed ‘folky’ simply by dint of their preference for acoustic instrumentation and facial hair.
Make no mistake though, Glasgow-based four-piece Trembling Bells are dyed-in-the-wool purveyors of proper folk music. Their work alternately conjures up images of bleak moors and rambunctious Medieval feasts; singer Lavinia Blackwall’s soaring vocals recall Fairport Convention‘s Sandy Denny, while many of their songs are rooted lyrically in particular English locations. One of them even contains a reference to real ale.
That’s not to say that Trembling Bells are folk purists. The most obvious influence on their new album The Constant Pageant is the English electric folk music of the 1960s, as performed by Pentangle, Steeleye Span and The Incredible String Band. Like the music of those bands, The Constant Pageant marries traditional folk elements with a willingness to crank up the volume and, frankly, rock out. And The Constant Pageant – particularly its first half – does indeed rock, and not just by the standards of folk music.
Lavinia Blackwall’s vocals sound particularly imperious on opener Just As The Rainbow – if it didn’t sound like a facetious comparison, one could compare this crashing, big-sounding track to the work of Mogwai. Up next, All My Favourite Mistakes is a coquettish duet between songwriter Alex Neilson and Blackwall that incorporates elements of American soul music – Neilson’s reedy vocals are, however, no match for Blackwall’s and the song is something of a dog’s dinner. Much more successful is Otley Rock Oracle, in which a pounding, brass-flecked rhythm degenerates into an ear-battering free jazz section.
Once Otley Rock Oracle is out of the way, Trembling Bells seem audibly to relax, and the try-hard tendencies of the album’s opening half give way to the album’s strongest songs. Goathland (that’s the one with the real ale reference) sounds like the perfect soundtrack to a slow dance in a bandstand; the lovely Torn Between Loves culminates in a graceful fugue of piano, cello and violin, while closer New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night Of The Year is ineffably sad and really quite beautiful. It all adds up to a qualified success from a very good band.