“As the alien living amongst you, I’m glad to see we can finally live in peace,” coos Maia’s lead singer Tom Clegg on the opening track of ‘Pepper Stars’, in a vocal style similar to what one images an extra-terrestrial’s would be like. And listening to the second album by this gang of four from Huddersfield, it’s hard to believe they came from anywhere as predictable as this big rock that we call planet Earth.
Clegg’s voice is just one of the many things that draws you into Maia’s weird world, where songs take frequent unexpected turns via guitar, banjo, uke and horns, yet always seem to find their way back home. Refreshingly, Maia also prove that the outer reaches of space can still act as a source of lyrical and musical inspiration without resulting in revolving stages, glitter suits and wanky guitar solos.
They might share a prog rock band’s propensity to indulge in an array of musical instruments, but, to their credit, each track of forward-thinking folk remains leanly composed and tightly crafted. And although the upper reaches of the great beyond are notoriously chilly, Pepper Stars radiates a warmth that increases on each listen; flashes of Spanish trumpet, bongos and the cajon (a percussive instrument from Peru), give an exotic, melting-pot feel to the album that make Maia a fascinating prospect for any listener.
Meanwhile, a streak of pop eccentricity runs throughout the album, from the camp stomp of the wistful ‘Alight Adventure’ to the melodically dexterous ditty ‘Dear iO’, to the propulsive ‘Living In the Alligator’. However, the pièce de résistance moment comes during the climax of ‘Where Else But Earth?’, when all the composite parts of Maia’s acoustic jigsaw gel together all at once.
The band also branch out and dip their toe into different styles and genres- from piano ballad (‘Sundown’) to country (‘More Strangely Than the Moon’) – pretty much nailing them both. There’s little else to compare their music to, however the album’s earthy, restrained production, with occasional lush orchestration, recalls the first few Elbow records. And comparisons with a similarly esoteric musician in Beirut were always going to be inevitable on the track ‘Constant Play’, when the good ol’ ukulele and trumpet combo rears its pretty head.
These days, it’s rare to find a young folk band that’s unafraid to experiment. At least here in UK, taking risks is something that the genre’s most popular bands (Mumford & Sons, Dry the River etc) have actively avoided. Luckily, however, Maia seem to be on a completely different planet all together.
Words: Nico Franks*
*DISCLAIMER: It should be noted that Tom Clegg, Maia’s lead singer, was in my year at secondary school. I’m not biased though- I’d have said if ‘Pepper Stars’ was a bad album. But it’s not so I didn’t.
Maia play live on the 27th November at the Bicycle Shop in Norwich, on the 12th December at Hootanannys in Brixton, 13th December at Flaxton Ptooch and on the 15th December at the Bandroom on Kirby Mooreside.