Veteran songwriter Phil Langran delivers a collision of stark intimacy and rich musical colour
Release Date: 2nd September 2022
Label: Longshore Drift
It’s clear that veteran songwriter Phil Langren spent lockdown in deep contemplation because the fruits of that contemplation are shared, on Phil’s new album, Falling Light. Like his 2019 album, Skywriting, Falling Light was recorded at Saltwell Studio in Huntingdon and produced by Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper and, once more, that team has risen to the challenge.
By my reckoning, Fallen Light is at least the seventh album from this mercurial songwriter. With one exception, all the songs on the album were written during the forced isolation of lockdown, and there’s a stark intimacy about the songs that reflect that period of isolation, loneliness and contemplation. Phil has assembled a stellar cast of musicians to add their subtle touches to the songs – to Phil’s vocals and guitar, Boo Hewerdine adds backing vocals, guitar, harmonium, piano and celeste, Aaaron Catlow contributes his signature and increasingly recognizable fiddle, Pete Harvey chips in with some wonderful cello, Gustaf Ljunggren some delicious acoustic slide guitar and Chris Pepper rounds the sound off with the lightest touches of percussion. The band combines wonderfully, yet unobtrusively, and Boo’s and Chris’s production is right on the nail.
And Phil’s songs are atmospheric, evocative, thought-provoking and well-structured. The challenge, perhaps, comes in getting to terms with Phil’s voice. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t unpleasant, but it is unusual. Occupying the middle ground between speech and melody, it’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt whatsoever about the levels of sincerity and intimacy that Phil’s vocals add to the songs; I was maybe reminded most of Peter Skellern when I first heard Phil’s voice and, by the time I’d got to Shiloh – track 6 of the album – I was converted.
Phil’s influences include the writings of American poets Langston Hughes and Robert Frost and the incorporation of these influences into Phil’s compositions has produced songs that are a blend of folk, Celtic influences, Americana and blues. That blend does break the surface occasionally on Falling Light and I’d also add a detectable presence of jazz and Latin – particularly Cuban – influence to that already heady mix.
The band is marvelous throughout, and each musician contributes flashes of brilliance at regular intervals. Pete’s cello is divine on opening track Repair The Heart and on Shiloh, one of the album’s outstanding tracks. Aaron excels on Longshore Drift, a song that hits heights of sophistication that are, maybe, absent elsewhere on the album, and on the album’s rousing closing track, the live favourite, Dunmanus Bay – the only song not composed during our recent period of confinement. Boo is excellent throughout, enlivening just about every track in one way or another. His vocal harmonies on This Day and Shiloh are spot-on, his piano on Longshore Drift and – particularly – the Buena Vista-like The Way add a sumptuous richness and his harmonium brings a feel of 1930’s nostalgia to the wistful waltz, For a Song, and adds the final polish to Shiloh. Gustaf and Chris have their moments, too; I love Gustaf’s slide guitar on You Can’t Go Back, a song that offers the wisest piece of advice, and, whilst Chris’s percussion is the lightest of light touches, it’s the icing on the cake on such tracks as Can’t Go Back (a soft yet insistent rhythm that drives the song along perfectly) and The Way (where the soft beats complete the Cuban experience).
Perhaps my favourite tracks are Shiloh – a lovely tune with a sparse backing that is gradually enriched as, first, cello and then violin and harmonium join the action; the quasi-traditional Alice Wynter – beautifully constructed with the simplest of accompaniments, along with For a Song and the closer, Damanus Bay. The song that most reflects the lockdown origins of these compositions is Kitchen Window, a piece that manages to invoke sentiments of contemplation and loneliness, as Phil considers the passage of time, as observed from a single window. An experience that, I guess we’ve all been through during the past couple of years.
Watch The Phil Langran Band perform Shiloh, a track from the album, live in West Bridgeford in 2019 here: