, May 10th, 2012 07:45
One of the most quietly interesting developments in music over the last decade has been the way in which the worlds of the experimental avant-garde and that of folk music have increasingly overlapped. There are many reasons why this shouldn't work; folk is all about tradition, convention and history, and a strict adherence to musical technique and form, while the avant-garde, by its very nature, exists to overturn and break from such boundaries and rules.
But there is also the common ground of stripping music back to its essentials, of improvisation and performances and recordings that are often necessarily lo-fi, using whatever implements are to hand- be they lutes and dulcimers, electric guitars and drums, computers and circuit boards or just the human voice and the odd percussive kitchen utensil. Experimental musicians are drawn towards the sense of mystery and resonance in folk music, and the possibility that in old folk song there still lingers the traces of ancient magical ritual. Then there are the drones, the unconventional tunings, and the sense above all that this is still outsider music, apart from the rock and pop mainstream and all it requires.
But sometimes the experimental musician goes so far down this road that they become fascinated by the idea of the song, and the discipline of working in traditional ways, while still trying to come up with something fresh and inventive. This seems to be the case with Two Wings. The core of the band, singer Hanna Tuulikki and guitarist Ben Reynolds, met on Glasgow's experimental and improvised music scene, and started playing together just over two years ago when Reynolds left contemporary folk-rock standard bearers Trembling Bells. That group's original guitarist, Reynolds played on their acclaimed debut album Carbeth, and has an association with Trembling Bells' drummer and bandleader Alex Neilson that goes back through various permutations to their time in Stoke's prolific drone collective Ashtray Navigations. Tuulikki meanwhile was known on the free-folk circuit for her group Nalle, and had also played with Alex Neilson's ur-group Scatter, The Family Elan, and Volcano the Bear's Daniel Padden. Born in Sussex though of Finnish descent, Tuulikki is also a visual and conceptual artist, and is possessed of one of the most unique and arresting voices in modern music; high but not shrill, somehow chubbily rounded, and inviting comparisons to other idiosyncratic stylists like Bjork and Joanna Newsom. Certainly, it's an expressive, unconventional instrument that listeners either love or loathe.
Naming themselves after Reynolds' 2008 solo album - an exercise in acoustic finger-picking that is otherwise utterly unrelated to the current band - the pair soon recruited bassist Kenny Wilson, drummer Owen Curtis Williams and second singer Lucy Duncombe to flesh out their songs and further move away from their minimalist, lo-fi beginnings. Indeed, Love's Spring is all about melody, harmony and richness, warm electric guitars and classic song structures, with often Tuulikki's voice the only link to their weird-beard past as they cross over from the territory of Radio 3's Late Junction towards Radio 2's Bob Harris Country.
So on first single and opening track 'Eikon', Hanna's unearthly vocals beam in over a woozy, rolling, waltz-time rhythm (most of the album is in waltz-time), bolstered by horns and Lucy Duncombe's more orthodox harmonies. Ben Reynolds contributes a languorous, bluesy guitar solo that feels epic despite only taking up two bars, and the whole is smokily soulful yet celebratory, and somehow distinctly Celtic. 'Feet' is pure Caledonian country, Hanna and Ben duetting like Gram and Emmylou as slide guitar and trumpet smear across the finger-picking like rain and tears on a smudged windowpane.
It's hard not to draw comparisons with Reynolds' old band Trembling Bells, as Two Wings very definitely work from the same palette- explicitly drawing on 1960s folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention and Pentangle, but expanding the cross-pollination to take in a wider field of reference. The most obvious difference is that where Trembling Bells explore British folk music, Two Wings draw more on Americana, their spiritual roots lying closer to Nashville and New Orleans than to Nottamun Town. They're also more ready to embrace classic pop mores, raising free-folk eyebrows by citing Ray Davies, Smokey Robinson and Bruce Springsteen among their influences.
The title track, for instance, may initially recall Fairport, but Hanna is closer to a young Kate Bush- the wayward, unhinged Bush of 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Baboushka'- than Sandy Denny, her voice all childish gulps and dives, soaring and warbling like a drunken seabird as recorders trill behind her and the drums and guitars crash around heedlessly. And then it all drops to a great instrumental breakdown like some 1980s' 12" club mix, Reynolds' simmering electric guitar duelling with Tuulikki's eerie Liz Fraser wails, washes of synth and prowling, almost dub-like bass.
They go back to the country on 'Valley' and, to an extent, 'Altars and Thrones' though the latter, with Reynolds taking lead vocals, is closer to vintage Leonard Cohen and has a dark psychedelic undertow. The pumping horns and descending chords of 'Just Like' are oddly reminiscent of Blur's 'For Tomorrow' if Richard Thompson had got hold of it, and then asked Altered Images' Claire Grogan to sing lead; a sugar rush spiked with Rohypnol, pulling you under and shooting you up at the same time. The near nine-minute closer, 'Forbidden Sublime' also nods to Thompson-era Fairport Convention, but with the sultry rhythms and slow-burning intensity of a Stax soul number. Hanna's vocals are especially vertiginous here, spiralling up and up, the whole song like a rollercoaster on a slow climb, anticipating a terrifying descent that never comes- instead, the view from the top is so spectacular, Two Wings simply fly off towards the horizon.