Wooden Arms – Trick Of The Light

Wooden Arms – Trick Of The Light

In my most used music player, the one that I place albums and tracks into for reviewing purposes, there is an unnamed album file containing six also unnamed tracks, an album that I’ve had for about three years and which every so often I play once more. It is a bit unusual musically, a mixture of alt.folk and orchestral strings that isn’t really like any other album in my collection that I’ve listened to much, and it is Wooden Arms 2014 debut Tide. There are other albums that I return to, for reasons such as their songwriting, musicianship and production, but Tide scored very highly on all three of those benchmarks and was, regrettable as it seemed, destined for the ‘forgotten genius’ category. So you can appreciate my actual enthusiasm when word reached me of a new album from the creators of Tide.

I downloaded my copy of Trick Of The Light anticipating an experience at least as overwhelming as that of their debut release, also aware that three years is quite a long time between albums for any band, and the Wooden Arms of 2017 are a different proposition to that of their Tide persona. Less folksily elegiac and more urban, the electronic and trip-hop influences far more pronounced and also –  do excuse me if I am reading more into Trick Of The Light than is actually there – it seems as if Wooden Arms new album has a detectable structure and sequence to its tracks, although it isn’t quite a concept album.

Shades of ’70s prog are never far from Trick Of The Light, with even its luminous red and blue artwork reminiscent of sci-fi murals of the Hipgnosis school. As to the music though, the opening bars of the album’s first and title-track seem comparatively subdued until the song opens up into a swaying, jolting collision of instrumentation, the string section adding a depth and vigour to an already energetic performance. The Wooden Arms bandwagon is already leaving us gasping in its dust, and the sound the five-piece band make can require some adjusting to. Where other musicians use swathes of synth and guitar effects, Wooden Arms grimy minimalism is augmented with a string duo, and while I am aware that there are a number of other bands and musicians utilising a similar format, I am unaware of ever having listened to anyone else doing exactly what it is Wooden Arms do, which is partly why Tide has continued to feature in my own playlists.

It’s the deceptively sentimental introduction to “Cole Porter” that explains the three year hiatus between Trick Of The Light and its predecessor and that unravels the contradictions at the heart of Wooden Arms, folksy troubadors gone vaudeville and here conjuring the sounds and atmospheres of a 1920s speakeasy where neither loungecore electronica or keening violins seem at all incongruous. This won’t prepare you for the controlled desperation of “Lost In Your Own Home”, though, the crashing piano chords and intensity of the lyric are an articulation of urban despair equal to Elvis Costello at his most vituperative, and it reveals Alex Carson as a songwriting talent of some significance. Others may find a resemblance to Nick Cave’s less weighty side, or the more reflective moments amongst the songs of Guillemots, or even harking back further to the verbosity of ’70s singer songwriters such as Randy Newman, Dean Friedman and others. Wooden Arms are definedly themselves, however, and possessed of a sullen brilliance that is occasionally dazzling.