Review Summary: The steepest hills make for the greatest views.
“I share your concerns about the glut of punk ‘troubadours’ out there. Most of them are pretty lame.” – Darren Johns, Crazy Arm*
These are somewhat brave words when you’re the frontman of a punk band about to release an acoustic album, but then Crazy Arm have always seemed detached from the current trend of shouty-punks-gone-folk. From the outset the Plymouth natives have blended the two genres into something all their own, while their influences have always run deeper than just a copy of Nebraska
and an acoustic guitar. The Southern Wild
is also more than a mere compilation of previous output given the acoustic makeover: although ‘We Don’t Go There Any More’ appeared on an early demo and ‘Fossils’ and ‘Roasting River’- the only track to make the jump from electric to acoustic- were b-sides to previous singles, the majority of these songs have been written specifically with this format in mind. The Southern Wild
is thus far closer to being the band’s third studio album than the one-off novelty acoustic albums run the risk of becoming.
While second record Union City Breath
was a compelling addition to the band’s catalogue, in hindsight it was perhaps slightly too sprawling for its own good, never settling on a distinct sound for more than a few minutes at a time. This time around the restrictions of an acoustic album have proven beneficial in creating a cohesive whole: there’s still room for some more unexpected influences to make an appearance- ‘The Wild Cats of Denbury’ is an atmospheric instrumental which could easily be a lost Baroness
interlude, while ‘The Valley of Weeping’ is a cappella but for its creeping post-rock drone- but on the whole inspiration is drawn solely from the depths of the folk and country traditions. This still provides more than enough scope for a varied and engaging collection of songs however, meaning The Southern Wild
is still recognisably a Crazy Arm record.
The album opens with Vicky Butterfield- whose prominence throughout is one of the record’s great strengths– pleading a cappella with the reaper in the traditional dirge ‘Oh Death’, before Ennio Marricone
guitars usher in the chain gang march of ‘Hell to Pay’. ‘County Jaws’ is a full band romp driven by Patrick James Pearson’s organ and piano, which unsurprisingly bears a resemblance to his own PJP Band
; while ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Roasting River’ are equally as enjoyable and feature liberal use of the banjo and fiddle. Lyrically, Johns is far less concerned with calling out those elements of the political system he finds repulsive than on previous efforts, instead turning his attentions inwards- perhaps a reflection of the more intimate nature of the music. Recurring throughout the record are the themes of death and commemoration: ‘Hell to Pay’ and ‘Remembrance’ both pay tribute to fallen/imprisoned political activists, with the former’s gothic storytelling reminiscent of Murder By Death
- “Lay me down tonight Lord / Tomorrow I am gone / They hang me in the morning / For running outside the law”. The uncertainties of ageing are also prevalent: on ‘Fossils’ Johns fears the consequences of his own (in)ability to adapt to change- “I’m in trouble if truth be told / There’s still fossils in this soul of mine”. Yet in the face of this the record never veers too far towards complete surrender (be it to political apathy or to personal strife) - there’s clearly an unexpected comfort to be found in “Learning to live with the cracks and the scars”.
Where The Southern Wild
will end up sitting in the wider Crazy Arm catalogue is an interesting question: it could become the Led Zeppelin III
-style ‘soft album’ needed to continue the band’s growth, or it could mark the start of a dichotomy between the band’s softer and harder influences. Such debates should be saved for much later down the line, however. What’s important here is that The Southern Wild
is a great alt. country/folk album in its own right, managing to rise above its long list of influences and thus stand well clear of the current crop of punk rock troubadours.
*I’ve kind of gone out of my way to misquote Johns here- he goes on to say: “…Then again, most bands are pretty lame… We’re hoping that people will see the difference between roots/folk music and pop-punk songs done on an acoustic guitar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”