The Marble Downs finds Alex Neilson and co. mining deeper in to a blend of idiosyncratic traditional British folk and psych-jazz madness. Applying the enthusiasm for the new of the eccentric British inventor to produce an album that is by turns krautrock hypnogogia, psychedelia and skuzz rock, and also incudes a trad folk a capella duet. The involvement of Will ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ Oldham, multiplies the preexisting restless creativity of The Trembling Bells’ resulting in an album that is a partial triumph.
The notes accompanying the album tell how Oldham’s catalyising openness apparently also meant psilocybin fuelled excursions into the inner mind, if the result is the more psychedelic, skuzzier end of the album here it was time well spent. He acts as a catalyst, allowing those around him to spread their wings: he provides the perfect vocal foil to Lavinia Blackwell adding a care warn charm to her lovely, slightly formal tones; Alex Neilson has suggested that he upped his game in terms of songwriting. Simon Shaw and Mike Hastings [Bass and Guitar] flex their muscles wonderfully on arrangements that are by turns loose and tight, shifting from traditional, bawdy folk to the more free-flowing via psych-folk and acid freak outs.
Album opener I Made a Date (with an Open Vein), sets out the stall well moving through distinct phases from modal chaos, before resolving into strong vocal leads. A folk-rock romp, a morbid romance. I Can Tell You’re Leaving is perhaps the best demonstration of Oldham and Blackwell’s back and forth, trading barbs, dueling. Marble Downs shines when it either steps up the energy as on Ain’t Nothing Wrong with a Little Longing – replete with rough hewn sax skronk – or plumbs the depths of dark, pitch black, romance – Everytime I Close My Eyes (We’re Back There) nails it with the line “The ultimate act of possession is homicidal love” or Riding’s thunderous drums and dark (possibly) incestuous tale. Excusrions into Assonance slowly unfolds to reveal its charms – from breathy intro to beautiful dénouement. My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him is a triumph of living breathing social history.
The Marble Downs has a couple of flaws: they over use long fade outs (on nearly half the tracks!), this always feels a little bit lazy to me. This is especially disappointing given the obvious smorgasbord of ideas present here. Why are they apparently unable to find a satisfactorily end to a song. I’m not too keen on that other archetype of Britishness – arch knowingness. The type of cleverness that comes up with long song titles doesn’t always translate well to the witty lyrical turns of phrase. For the most part though they just about skirt the right side of the overly clever-clever, and when they get it right it really is wonderful.
There are spells here where the album plugs right in to the shared deep British consciousness; the traditions of folk and the eccentric creative overflow. Marble Downs mysteriously maintains a ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ quality. This though is a strength, as it feels immediate, familiar and powerfully evocative of other places, other eras. A number of the songs feel a little but baggy, almost as if they have a great idea that coalesces all too briefly before it falling to pieces again, but the balance is broadly successful. When by the end of the album Lord Bless All rumbles through its slow oscillation of an intro into distant vocal chants before building to its squall of space-rock any minor qualms disappear.
This post first appeared on The What Where When on 10 April 2012