Ellis Island Sound – The Good Seed

Ellis Island Sound
The Good Seed

The push/pull of urban/rural aesthetics has been a constant driving force in musical creativity from year dot; a fact that’s certainly not been lost in the prolific oeuvres of David Sheppard and Peter Astor. Over the past decade the twosome have both shed their indie-rock roots to explore musical projects that have blurred the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic, the arcane and the cutting-edge, and the complex as well as straightforward. The most well-known of these two chameleons’ twining and parallel endeavours have been Sheppard’s post-folk collective State River Widening and Astor’s lo-fi art-pop outfit The Wisdom of Harry. On top of that, Sheppard has also cut two idiosyncratic albums as a duo with SRW’s Keiron Phelan, whilst Astor has quietly slipped-out a solo folk covers collection, entitled Hal’s Eggs. Stuffed right to the back of these stacks of releases have been Astor and Sheppard’s esoteric recordings as Ellis Island Sound – sporadically scattered across 7” singles, EPs, a mini-album and one eponymous compilation – secretively soaking-up the residue and overspill from the two men’s myriad of melting pots. Although the erratically scheduled EIS discography has certainly provided plenty of perverse charm with its globules of largely vocal-less retro-futuristic grooves, Sheppard and Astor have been unable to give the venture the time to develop into a full-bodied enterprise. Until now that is, with the first ‘proper’ album in the ten-year history of EIS, The Good Seed.

However, anyone expecting this first official long-player to be a simple expansion of the earlier metropolitan and electronically-orientated EIS works is in for a pleasant surprise, as Astor and Sheppard (augmented by Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Josh Hillman) unfurl a 20-track treat shaped from sessions taped in a rented ex-chapel in agrarian East Anglia. Assembling a diverse array of instruments – everything from a “Maroushka lap harp” to a “Blue Moon mountain dulcimer” and a “Casio SK-8 mini sampler”– and inhaling deeply from the invigorating country air, The Good Seed finds these two long-time Londoners merging their own diverse back catalogues with pure pastoral romanticism.

Despite its lengthy tracklist, The Good Seed only clocks in at a concise 46 minutes, which means that the whole wordless affair acts more like one cohesive sonic cycle rather than a collection of easily separated passages. On one level it feels of a journey back through the rose-tinted past of bucolic Britannia, on another just a joyous distillation of disparate sounds, both classical and contemporary. The delicious “Count The Cars” is an identifiable highlight of such generational/geographical melding; weaving earthy string and accordion lines around watery programmed percussion and dub-style melodica. The galloping drums, strummed unplugged guitars and bowed saws ‘n’ strings of “The Villagers” and “Density Ratio” revisit the euphoric Pentangle-meets-Nick Drake environs of the first SRW album, without resorting to obvious plagiarisation. Elsewhere, “The Plagal Walk” and “Dark Lane” wander into the acid-folk lands once frequented by The Incredible String Band and The Wicker Man soundtrack. Most arresting of all though, are the medievally-tinged delights of “The Waverney Waltz” and “Starlight Madrigal” which distance the EIS idiom even further from its Brian Eno-indebted beginnings.

The more you listen, the more you’ll keep picking-out great individual moments, but ultimately The Good Seed is best-served whole, as the ideal companion piece to a balmy summer’s day in a rustic retreat.