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Cherry Ghost
Herd Runners Robin Smith , June 5th, 2014 08:22

History will not be kind to Simon Aldred. He is fated to be remembered as that dude who belted out 'People Help The People', a surprise minor-hit that Britain fell for the way it did 'Mad World': depressing shit, shoved onto a radio of sunnier pop music vying to outshine it. You'd be excused for forgetting about Cherry Ghost on the basis of hearing 'People' fifty times: between its huge piano chords and Aldred's preacher-man vocal performance, it made for an unfortunately placed single, one that sounded like nothing else on the chart it cracked, but was just as easy to overplay. It's hard to feel the way 'People' sounds every single day.

Within Cherry Ghost's debut, Thirst For Romance, 'People' made a whole lot more sense, rendered as just one of many widescreen pop songs about lost love. But the single is still a feint; what's come to interest Aldred is moulding songs from country textures and subtle vignettes on loneliness, a style he mastered with his less intense early singles. On debuting 2010's 'Kissing Strangers', his best song to date, he said he felt he'd written something "Sinatra-esque", as if he'd captured the best of his vocal bravado – really, though, the sharp pain it's consumed by is more Vic Chesnutt than Sinatra.

"Strings, harps, no minor keys, big, romantic. Usual shit". Aldred tweeted this short summary of Herd Runners to a fan last year, and it captures his band's sound well: aspirational, schmaltzy, filled with a warehouse of violins, but usual shit it remains. What makes Aldred such a fascinating songwriter is his ability to fall back to earth, to take songs that sound huge and hopeful – and so filled with orchestration you only hear half of it – but then deal them blows. 'My Lover Lies Under' is his most panoramic song to date, lingering on scenes like they're still pictures in a movie montage. It takes place over sustained piano chords and ascendant string arrangements, and maps out lovesickness as if it's airborne, a feeling being passed through cities: "through the shadows of the old high rise / past the factory floors and severed ties". What makes 'My Lover' special is its chorus, in which Aldred severs ties with his corny influences by playing up to them: he sings "I do believe I've lost my faith in Hollywood / those dreams upon the screen ain't for the likes of us", with all the romantic hopelessness of Love Actually.

Aldred's songwriting treats love as something both impossible and necessary. Many of Herd Runners' best moments focus on waiting and wanting: Aldred sings about sitting in bars across the table from no one ('Drinking For Two'), waiting for serendipity to get a jump on loneliness ('The World Could Turn'), and seeking out love in the darkness ('Clear Skies Ever Closer'). As a result, Herd Runners is actually the least "romantic" Cherry Ghost record to date, revealing itself to be a modest collection of songs about not holding your breath for love: 'The World Could Turn', which takes on a more optimistic tack than the Aldred standard, stifles its blaring trumpets underneath Aldred's high-flying octave, making for a song that shoots for euphoria but can't reach it. Towards its outro, the song introduces a spoken word accompaniment, repeating Aldred's words verbatim until they're drained of their wishful thinking.

While Herd Runners builds on the qualities Aldred has always been attracted to – bold, traditional storytelling and sentimental arrangements – it feels less urgent than the records that came before it. Thirst For Romance and Beneath This Burning Shoreline raced in with exuberance, but 'Clear Skies Ever Closer' channels its romanticism thinly, opening flushed in smooth guitar riffs and quick string motifs. It's a wonderfully loose song, culminating in a bridge in which Aldred tumbles gleefully down to sweltering trumpet and platitudes about love. Nothing has changed about the way Aldred writes songs, or the way in which he can revitalise the queasiest musical clichés, but the ease with which he does it is evident in Herd Runners.

Herd Runners is unlikely to make waves: it's too delicate a record, showing off what Aldred can do with Being There-influenced guitar twang (appearing on 'Sacramento' and 'Drinking for Two') instead of the bold, sombre tones of Beneath This Burning Shoreline (which could've veered into Starsailor territory if taken further: maybe it's for the best). This feels like an attempt by Aldred to make his songs as gentle as they are grand, evident in his most vulnerable vocal performance to date. Cherry Ghost didn't make good on the pop potential of 'People Help The People', and haven't fared well as an "indie rock" band – Aldred's voice is too mature for that, and his musical vocabulary makes his songs anachronistic. It's sadly fitting: Herd Runners is another excellent record by a disastrously underrated songwriter who doesn't believe in love, but doesn't get enough of it either. There's only so long he can wait.

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