Into The Diamond Sun
, August 20th, 2012 10:11
The first time I interviewed Becky Hawley, Stealing Sheep's keyboard player and chief-of-strategy, she suggested her Liverpool flat as the venue. Ensconced around her kitchen table, Hawley chatted about her time spent at the city's Institute of Performing Arts, recalled an evening spent jamming with Paul McCartney and revealed how Stealing Sheep had once been smuggled into Abbey Road in the dead of night to record their early single 'I Am The Rain'.
A few months later, I returned to Merseyside to interview Stealing Sheep for the Quietus. This time, I'd arranged to meet all three band members with guitarist Emily Lansley and drummer Lucy Mercer also in attendance. I was immediately struck by the ease with which Stealing Sheep embraced each others' vastly different worldview. Hawley cites electronica and Björk as sources of inspiration while Lansley is a veteran of Liverpool's psychedelic-rock scene. Perhaps most intriguingly, Mercer – who told me she doesn't own a CD player, let alone a music collection – has played percussion in everything from marching bands to gypsy folk groups.
It's this diversity that fuels their delightful debut album. Building on an impressive collection of early singles (neatly captured on the Noah & The Paper Moon EP), Into The Diamond Sun is a beautifully crafted suite of songs that showcases their dextrous three-part harmonies without succumbing to saccharine tweeness.
Recorded with local producer Sam Crombie, the opening trio of tracks brim with assurance, building on their initial psych-folk leanings. 'The Garden' tags Lansley's fluid guitar to a mantra-like vocal, while lead single 'Shut Eye' is a froth of intricate word play and a twiddly melody amid Mercer's expansive percussion and a lonely horn finale; it manages to be both clever and immensely likeable and is typical of Stealing Sheep's appeal. Even better is 'Rearrange', which takes swirly psychedelia and adds handclaps and numerous neat twists. It's an arrangement by a band not scared to experiment but cognisant of the requirement to deliver within the constructs of a three-minute pop song.
Lyrically, much of Into The Diamond Sun is a patchwork of vivid metaphorical imagery. However, on the excellent, Mercer-led 'White Lies' Stealing Sheep suddenly change tactics; “You say that you love me / But we both know you don't” she half-complains, half-reflects on a standout track set to Hawley's woozy electronic backdrop. The Lansley composition 'Shark Song' recovers from the opening line of “Sharks are big and sharks are scary” to reveal a Warpaint-meets-The Staves moment of brooding folk-pop.
There is a sense that Stealing Sheep are musicians first and foremost, as opposed to music geeks who formed a band to flesh out their dreams. Into The Diamond Sun neither panders to the genre hoarders nor allows itself to be boxed into the 'nervous baby steps' mindset befalling so many debut long-players. It's driven by a need for musical exploration rather than Lansley, Mercer or Hawley trying to recreate their favourite bands. When they do embark on a song that initially appears to be grounded in something familiar, the fluent indie-pop of 'Genevieve' quickly wriggles free from the hook of categorisation.
Perhaps the album's most interesting track is 'Tangled Up In Stars'. Within the space of two packed minutes, the song takes the trio's ability to harmonise around (and not within) a melody and sets it to a galloping drum roll, more handclaps and shimmering cymbals before ending with a Kinks-like wig-out. It's oddly wonderful.
Frustratingly, the album closes with its weakest song. 'Bear Tracks' gets tangled up in trying to be too many things and only succeeds in achieving clunkiness when Into The Diamond Sun deserves a soaring send-off. But, it's a reminder that Stealing Sheep will happily admit to being a 'work in progress' and a small blemish on a marvellous record packed with charm. "We wanted more - more drums and more harmonies – more everything," Hawley told me when describing the recording process for the album. Fittingly, Into The Diamond Sun bursts with ingredients and inventiveness.