Review Summary: Tuneful indie-folk from the new Mumfords.
With their debut album, Stornoway have confidently staked their claim as leaders of the next generation of indie-folk bands to come out of the UK, following the trail blazed by Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and others a few years ago.
The resemblance to the Mumfords' debut, 'Sigh No More', goes deeper than simply evoking the same style. Both albums deal in wind instruments, banjo and Englishness, and both are instantly recognisable by their opening tracks, both huge singles. 'Zorbing' is Stornoway's equivalent of the massive Mumford & Sons single 'The Cave' - it heralds the beginning of the album with a catchy folk tune, which gradually devolves into free jazz as the song goes on, incorporating some odd influences which Stornoway are really able to pull off. The subject matter, too, is quirky and interesting - the band imagine themselves 'Zorbing through the streets of Cowley.' For those who aren't familiar with the sport of Zorbing, it is basically running down a hill in a large inflated rubber globe, like a giant hamster ball. Go figure. But the rather whimsical image of the band zooming along Oxford's notoriously bohemian Cowley Road in a Zorb, dodging the traffic as they go, is well captured by the song. It get's specific references to specific things in the lyrics just right, and avoids sounding forced or stilted.
Other songs on the album are more straight-down-the-line folk, tinged by the strong, smooth and slightly posh voice of the vocalist, Brian Briggs, and many are just as excellent as the opener. 'Fuel Up' is a really stirring ballad about a rambling life on the road, and 'We Are The Battery Human' is a Mumford-style folk stomp about the human condition in the 21st century. For such a young band, the arrangements are sophisticated and show clearly that they have done their research into the British folk tradition. A violin counter-melody here, a banjo break there, and always perfectly executed in the indie style, an eclectic blend of things old and new. Stylistically, however, in spite of the wide range of instruments, the songs remain the same, as it were, and you eventually start to recognise the same riffs, rhythms and chops being recycled in new forms. Whilst this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it prevents the album from having more magic moments, for the sake of consistency.
Listening to Beachcomber's Windowsill gives the impression of a group of young, carefree blokes exploring the folk traditions they have learnt and using their impressive musical training and ability to make great, tuneful pop music. The pleasant affability conveyed in the album is confirmed to me by my flatmate, who went to school with members of the band. The album isn't groundbreaking stuff, and though consistent is somewhat limited. However, this is a promising first record that hints at something greater in the future - let's hope that the 'difficult second album' for Stornoway proves not to be too much of a challenge.