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Penny Orchids
Worse Things Aug Stone , July 30th, 2014 06:57

If you've ever been listening to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and thought "I really like this, but if only they were more nautically themed", then this is the album for you.

Sinister tales on stormy seas, gothic blues, softer numbers all Celtic pentatonic, and a darkly jubilant journey into the multi-cultured heart of 1930s New York City. Stylistically diverse, Penny Orchids do mood very well. Though often keeping to the shadows, they have a wonderful knack of coursing into short major key passages, further enriching the underworld lives they evoke. The instrumentation of the band is well suited for such barreling and soaring through varied musical sections. Drummer Tom Harrison holds the album together with his tight combination of precision and subtle power, while keyboard (Kate Dornan) and saxophone (Phil Whaite) augment the outlaw scenery conjured up by main songwriters Dom Green (bass) and Sam Astley (guitar, vocals). And on the electric flamenco feel of 'Your Vacant Eyes', guest trumpeter Mel Reardon lays down a Spaghetti Western-esque melody, the line later imperceptibly shifting to Whaite's sax.

Setting the tone for the rest of the album, opener 'One More Drink' is heralded by tipsy sea shanty accordion and clink of glasses before a boisterous snare and frantic surf guitar kick in the song itself, low half-sung, half-spoken vocals recounting its murderous tale. At three minutes in, the waters calm and in flows one of those lovely musical interludes before building back into a full-throttle outro complete with call-and-response shouted vocals. We are told this is an album of two halves, the second of which is Maloney Does New York, a "six-song concept odyssey of an Irish immigrant to 1930s NYC who falls in with the Jewish mafia". But without knowing this information, the entire album seems to spout the story of this man who escapes the Old World, his reasons and character hinted at in the unpleasantness of his voyage.

Before we get to the Maloney odyssey proper though, the maritime adventure and sorrow continue, switching tack for two major key ballads, owing more than a little to The Pogues for their pretty lead lines. 'Eliza Battle' features lovely choral work, lyrics such as "figures on fire cling to the trees all the way home" pleasingly at odds with the sweetness of the music. After occupying similar melodic territory, shortly after the three minute mark 'Trinidad' bursts into island celebration, all horns and rhythmic shuffle.

Minute-long instrumental 'The New World' launches the Maloney saga, its tonality edging us back towards the minor. And with Eastern European flair and shouts of 'Oy!', 'Maloney Does New York' plunges us into the shadows of the immigrant population of the city. Husky vocals give us further insight into the character of Maloney and a detailed tour of New York takes in the Williamsburg Bridge, Union Square, the Bowery, Ludlow & Avenue A, to name a few. Next number 'Maloney Has A Change Of Heart' further captures the bustle of the metropolis with an even livelier pace, the instruments running Slavic riffs in unison, and lyrics offer "Look away for a second, life splits at the seems", dreams and all. Later, in 'Maloney Is Riding High Again', "haggard and jaded" Maloney decides to move his family to Atlantic City. The ensemble stretching along this distraught state until from out of nowhere slides in a major key exuberance, a hard won redemption, seemingly both despite and because of the tough life lived. Such is grace.

The highlight of the album is gorgeous closer 'Shell Beach'. Sung by Dornan, its suspended chords further tickling that territory between minor and major. A beautiful, cinematic dream, with a lovely lazy twist towards the end of the chorus further played upon in the middle eight. And we fade out, of course, to the sounds of water.