Classy and classic country duet territory from Wales, with a foot in the folk and rock of Americana.
Release date: 8th July 2022
Label: Self released
Good title that, immediately grabbing attention, together with it dropping at this relative midsummer lull in the torrent of releases coming my way, each allowing this striking release to poke a head above the parapet and punch a weight that might go amiss at other times of year. Faint praise? Not a bit of it, this is classy Americana of the sort UK artists are getting ever stronger at producing. (I was going to say at reproducing, but that suggests more copycat facsimile, whereas this has an original and identifiable personality, yes, reliably within the genre but not blind to facets of original interpretation and character.)
The Black Feathers are both a couple and a duo, Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler, originally from the wild west of Gloucestershire, now ensconced in the rural heartlands of south-central Wales. Not their first album, Soaked To The Bone, released in 2016, that had gained them plaudits from the likes of Bob HarrisRelentlessly touring the US, lockdown had them on the last plane out of JFK, with the coming months then offering both a challenge and an opportunity. Relocation gave the impetus to an earthier sound, with a more organic feel.
Nominally an acoustic duo, the studio allows them the room to become a full electric band, picking and choosing the instrumentation to have that hinterland between folk and country emerging as a distinct entity. With most of the selection being songs of their own writing, there is also one of the more inspired cover versions you will hear this year. Each of them singers, albeit with contrasting tones and styles: Hughes structured and warm, Chandler capable of a scholarly rock-chick, OK, country-rock chick, anguish, as well as mellower honeyed moments, with the harmonies then merging them, as might an agreeable JD and molasses mix. (Strangely, as the record progresses, Chandler becomes progressively smoother, maybe needing to get the earlier sassiness out her system early doors.) Hughes is an adept guitarist, more than capable also on keyboards, the pair here augmented by Jack Beddis on drums and Hugh Richardson on bass, with other musicians dipping in where required.
Quite what Lighthouse On Fire is all about as it opens, all atmospheric inclement weather and sonic distortion, voices singing a background ghostly chorale, is anyone’s guess. That lifts, with a crash of waves, after maybe a minute, becoming a pleasant organ and strumming sway, the two taking turns at the verses, the organ and guitar turns at the solos. I think it’s a metaphor about leaving your burning bridges behind you, but could well be wrong. It’s a good start, before the acoustic anthem Only The Brave. With two harmony verses, the drums then usher in a second part, the lush organ tones again a warm and unctuous brew, the vocals taking a build in intensity, Chandler a howling counterpoint to Hughes more stolid reassurances. The organ on these two openers come from Dan Moore (Massive Attack, Beth Orton). A bit different. As is the intro to the next song, the is it really Glory Box? After a good old swampy dip, it certainly is, with electric wah wah fiddle sweeping all over the appropriately beseeching vocals. This comes from a Chris Lynch, who is a film composer from Santa Cruz, his playing appropriately widescreen. It’s great, and this cajunbilly version works a treat, and I can imagine it being a belter, live.
Chemical Romance is back to plaintive acoustic guitar ballad, a maudlin love song to past misdemeanours, the clue being, one supposes, in the name. A string quartet offers a shimmery bed around the voices and guitar, adding to the overall atmosphere of loss tinged with gratitude, and it succeeds the difficult subject convincingly and without mawkishness. Hurricane is perhaps the most transatlantic track so far, the dobro of Phillip Henry (Edgelarks) all over the song. a 4:4 swagger, with driving drums. Again the pair trade vocals, share vocals and generally show quite what power and range they have between them. In her gentler register, Chandler has very much the flavour of a slightly lighter, slightly looser Roseanne Cash, even, by virtue of the song’s structure, Mary Chapin Carpenter. Hughes is maybe more in the style of any of the finest purveyors of a high and lonesome sound, a voice of oil on troubled waters. And that is what you hear as Strangers In The Dark, definitely the most “and Western” song here, a glorious ballad, the pair switching and sharing the vocals convincingly, coming together for some consummate harmonisation that suddenly reveals them, vocally at least, as our very own version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, thrown into a blender, possibly and awkwardly, with Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, for the songwriting.
Golden Hour is just the sort of by rote bar room rocker you need after that, lifted again by the return of the string quartet sawing away vigorously in the background, that being sufficient to lift it out of any sense of cliche. Extra guitar here, and also on the album opener, comes courtesy the legendary Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt, Muscle Shoals). The title track is then a much more sombre beast, just piano and voices, and maybe another nod back, lyrically, to the subject matter of Chemical Romance. The drums and organ slowly join the evisceration, it gradually becoming quite an epic as Hughes’ own guitar solos too, is it cigarette lighters or fireflies? Dan Moore’s piano adjoins and it is all a bit special. Better play it again for good measure. I did. You will. Barcelona tries to maintain the mood, but sadly is unable. (What could?) The weakest song in the set, it is merely pleasant enough. Silver Linings then evokes James Taylor, at the top of his range, in duet with Linda Ronstadt, and, if the sound is better than the song, it is easily forgiven, but is a bit Nashville TV special for me.
Thankfully, Nos Da, the closer, extinguishes such whimsy, just Chandler, singing strongly over Hughes’ guitar and the string quartet. A song by Dan Moore, it is called Nos Da, or Night Night, I guess, in English. A masterclass in vocal control, it concentrates the emotions hinted at elsewhere. Chris Lynch’s fiddle makes a welcome return, as the song stretches out. It is followed by an uncredited piano coda, also by and played by Moore, that scrapes carefully up all the moods of the album, putting them into a calm and steady place.
This is a very good record. Uncertain how it may translate into solo guitar and vocals, I suspect many of the songs are strong enough and are able to stand alone, and not be dependent on the embellishments, no matter how well produced, by Owain Fleetwood Jenkins and the band, and put together they are. As this is written they are shortly back out on the road, stateside, for another extensive travail through the music cafes and bars that feature good music. Don’t be strangers here, back home.
Here’s Glory Box; you know you want it…