Stornoway have a bit of a history with FFS. Around the time of their first album we became a little frustrated with their insistence that they were not a folk band. We wrote our review of the record as an open letter. Don’t shy away from being folk music, we said. Folk was undeniably what the album was, and they should be proud of that. They even responded – linking to our review and asking their fans on Facebook what they thought on the matter. Not that we’re counting, but the fans tended to agree with us.
And so now we are faced with the return of one of our favourite new acts of the last two years. The controversy over folk has faded. We’ve moved on, and so have the band – who seem to have spent every moment since releasing Beachcomber’s Windowsill ironing out their sound and deciding exactly who they want to be. And that, it seems, is Stornoway mark one, only better.
Take opening track ‘You Take Me As I Am’, a gleeful explosion of strumming guitars and the Vince Guaraldi piano that was so prominent in the first record. Is that a theremin in the background? It could be. This is Stornoway in kitchen sink mode – big music and evocative, nostalgic lyrics. Ecstatic brass. Brian Briggs’ unmistakable vocals. The lyric – celebrating a woman who loves you for exactly who you are, and the freedom that gives you – feels at times vaguely spiritual. Unlike a band like Mumford and Sons, Stornoway leave you inclined to believe this is a happy coincidence. But it’s fitting in many ways – the song is a triumphant and evangelistic hymn of love.
Elsewhere the band provide terrific, fun pop songs. ‘The Bigger Picture’ places the band somewhat alongside their musical contemporaries The Leisure Society, but their lyrics are brighter and so optimistic they could convince the victim of a car crash of ‘the bigger picture’. You could almost imagine him, strewn across the wet road on a rainy night, the newly-dented car blasting the song from its speakers. “Oh well,” the victim would say. “At least the driver has learnt a valuable lesson in breaking distance.”
On ‘Hook, Line, Sinker’ we’re treated to a distinctly Arcade Fire-esque chorus. There might even be a hint of Radiohead lingering around. It’s all rather frustrating, given the fuss we made last time. Simply put, Tales From Terra Firma is not a straight folk album – though it remains firmly inspired by the genre (closing track ‘November Song’ is a gorgeous little moment that won’t set the festivals alight this summer, but will certainly provide a memorable three minutes at their own headline gigs), Tales is big, and accessible and above all else, intensely fun.
It seems that a lot of time has passed since the band released their debut album three summers back. What then might have seemed like a flirting with folk in the public consciousness has become very much the mainstream – or at least, a completely credible alternative to that mainstream. And this is the world Stornoway’s second album is made for. Funnily enough, it’s the world they were probably aiming for the first time around.
Words: Stephen Thomas