Short Takes on Three Albums

Smoke Fairies - Ghosts

Smoke FairiesGhosts

V2 Records

Smoke Fairies is the London-based duo of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies and the U.S.-only release Ghosts compiles their first two singles and an EP into a 9-song disc of hauntingly stark and beautiful noir alt-folk tunes that revolve around the gals’ ethereal to earthy dual harmonies.  Before and during the formation of Smoke Fairies, Katherine and Jessica traveled from their native U.K. to New Orleans and Vancouver, and then back to the U.K., playing gigs, writing songs, and biding time in various bands.

Katherine and Jessica root their interweaving and mirroring harmonies in old-time-sounding, finger-picked acoustic and slide guitar lines, evoking images of both lonesome Western prairies and crumbling Medieval castles.  A spiderweb guitar line is picked out on “Fences” with occasional antique piano notes following the guitar’s pattern, as plainer, upfront vocals are contrasted with supporting vocals that float in the ether as Katherine (or is it Jessica?) sings forlornly “I don’t want to be bad anymore.” and “Life is just a series of stumbles and falls.”  A slowly loping pace created by the light thump of drums and circling guitar line build a low-key tension on “Frozen Heart”, with Katherine and Jessica harmonizing in an operatic tenor that “…they’ll soon find out the coldness winter brings.”

Harmonica pulls at the start of the spare “He’s Moving On” capture the Americana aspect of the song, along with the interplay of acoustic and slide guitars and Katherine and Jessica’s stark, clear, intertwining vocal layers on the chorus.  “Living with Ghosts” recalls the guitars of Chris Wittingham of Ruby Throat in their bluesy refrain as shadowy vocals opine melancholically “It can get lonely living with ghosts…”, while a vespertine vibe emanates from “Troubles”, which also employs ominous slide guitar lines, drum thump, and plaintive vocals.  On “Sunshine” Katherine and Jessica go for a more emotive, classical vocal tone and even use a bit of rock guitar grind against a cymbal-tap tempo.  Katherine and Jessica bring their rich, achingly bittersweet vocals to the fore on “We Had Lost Our Minds” amid slow pulls of cello.

Villagers - Becoming A Jackal

VillagersBecoming A Jackal

Domino Records

Becoming A Jackal , the debut album from Dublin, Ireland-based, one-man band Villagers has been out since June on Domino Records.  Frontman Conor O’Brien, who also plays nearly all the instruments on the album, is of the traditional singer-songwriter mold, conveying story-telling songs about relationships and life with heartfelt ease.  Conor’s vocals are delivered in a soft-spoken, sing-talking manner, while the guitar-based, lyrics-centered songs alternate between briskly-paced numbers and slower laments.  Conor’s vocals come off like Brandon Reilly of the band Nightmare Of You, but with less twisty sharpness and zest.

For all the critical praise heaped upon Mercury Prize-nominated Villagers and Becoming A Jackal, the album doesn’t leave much of an impact.  While it doesn’t grate, it’s too sedate, offering up songs of lyrical despair and wit that isn’t matched by the muted instrumentation or subtle vocal delivery.  The song structures and calm vocals are too pleasant for the heart-broken and dispirited lyrics, and they flow by like a refined, unobtrusive stream that hides its rough rocks under the surface.

Lead single “I Saw the Dead” is perhaps the best of the bunch with its swells of bittersweet strings, flowing cascades of piano notes, starry tinkling notes, and Conor sounding like he’s in a dream state, quietly sing-talking in an unruffled voice “It feels like I’m changing / keep forgetting my way / so I asked a …stranger / but he led me astray.”  The title song has picked acoustic guitar playing against Conor’s sincere tone as he murmurs “I was a dreamer / staring out windows…”  Conor’s vocals and lyrics are always in the spotlight and never more so than on “The Meaning of the Ritual” where he sings with a yearning tremble amid mourning horns and somberly pulled strings that “My love is selfish / and it cares not who it hurts / and I bet that yours is too / What is this peculiar word called truth?”

Muffled vocals fill in the sonic backdrop of “Home”, with strummed guitar, soft cymbal shimmer, brushed drums, and Conor admitting “I don’t want to take this trip alone.”  The up-tempo nature of “The Pact (I’ll be Your Fever)” is refreshing, including Conor’s sing-song vocal delivery, while his seriously bereft mood and higher vocal range are put to fine use on “Pieces”.

The Twilight Garden - A World We Pretend

The Twilight GardenA World We Pretend

Projekt Records

The artists on Projekt Records thrill with the chill or enthrall with the pall, but the songs on The Twilight Garden’s  (AKA Todd Loomis, formerly in Velvet Acid Christ) debut album, released this past February, are mainly lukewarm and pallid instead, suffering from a mid-tempo malaise that is neither dramatic, nor tragic.

The musical references are sound and the guitars and synths sonics are engaging as Todd segues from the deep organ synth notes and limpid The Cure-like guitar lines at the end of darkwave “I Am Echo” to the electronic blips on the synth-pop song “Dead Adults” to the Depeche Mode-like dark dance of “The Puppeteers”, but more intricacy and variation in song structures and tempos are needed to retain listener interest.  The similarity in sound (due to the constantly buzzing, sustained  synths) and ponderous pace of most songs becomes monotonous over an entire album.

Todd’s vocals are also a bit lightweight in comparison to the album’s goth and darkwave-shrouded, drawn-out sound.  A singer in the vein of Robert Smith, who can project sharp anguish, or Peter Murphy, who can dive into deep desolation, is crucial to convey the gravity of the music and lyrics.  On this album Todd alternates between Trent Renzor-like exclamations that sound too forced, a plainer, sing-talking tone that is not compelling, and an appealing, higher, yearning register that he employs to best effect on parts of “A-Wake” and “Delusions Of Us” where his vocals are airy and subdued, but still emotional, trailing off into echoes at the ends of phrases like “Nobody cares.”

There are a few killer lyrics scattered through the songs, like “We die by the stars in the sky…” from “A World We Pretend” and the “… lies in your eyes are so crystal clear.” on “The Puppeteers”, but they are blurred by borderline-sappy lines like “You turn my eyes into waterfalls.” on “Something Beautiful” and “World we pretend…blows my mind.” from the title song.