Monday, 5 May 2014

REVIEW: Merrymouth - 'Wenlock Hill' (Navigator Records)

Originally formed as a backing group for a folk-flavoured Simon Fowler solo project, Merrymouth soon evolved into a great band in their own right, partly due to the creative urges of Fowler's Ocean Colour Scene bandmate Dan Sealey, himself a very talented songwriter and vocalist. 'Wenlock Hill' is their second album and follows on from 2012's self titled debut, which was released as 'Simon Fowler's Merrymouth'. Opening up and embracing a more diverse range of sounds, 'Wenlock Hill' is an unmistakeably English record that offers a more undiluted taste of Fowler's favoured folk style, and delivers moments that will surprise and charm even those who (for some unknown reason) usually dread the very thought of Ocean Colour Scene. Don't expect this to be a bunch of leftovers that didn't make the latest OCS album, because something tells me that Fowler and co have been saving these up for special occasion...


That's certainly the impression given by the gracefully expressive opening title track, a dazzling and magnificently arranged reminder of Fowler's songwriting abilities. Rather irritatingly this moment of magic is followed by the misguided buffoonery that is 'Salt Breeze', a gratingly jaunty number with cloying lyrics and an annoying insistence that you join in with the joke. Despite the presence of Chas Hodges (of Chas And Dave fame) on piano, it seems to drag on much, much longer than the 3 minutes it actually runs for. Just press skip, and all will be fine. It sticks out like a sore thumb next to the lovely 'Blink Of An Eye', which wisely tries something a bit more familiar, this time a tender piano ballad with another heartwarming melody that wraps itself around you like a warm embrace, although it may be a tad over sentimental for some people. People with hearts of stone, that is.

That gift for crafting beautifully emotive hooks is boldly evident on the melodious, touching 'Without You', a charming Americana-tinged tale of long distance love and loneliness that's easily up there with all of Fowler's finest works. But the real surprise is hearing the almost sacred The Stone Roses classic 'I Am The Resurrection' recast as a tender piano and violin number with wonderful three part harmonies. An interesting reinterpretation, an impressive one too, and certainly a risky one to put on the album. A risk that has paid off handsomely.


An unashamedly Beatles-flavoured treat arrives in the shape of 'That Man', perfect retro pop with a brilliant psychedelic bridge that takes it elsewhere, before more 60s influences are built into the enjoyably perky 'Teashop Serenade', a vaudevillian swing where Noel Coward meets The Kinks. The colours of Ray Davies even (somewhat ironically) find their way into the trio's splendidly organic take on The Stranglers' 'Duchess', which has to be one of the most perfectly realised covers these ears have ever experienced, a respectfully faithful, yet brightly pastoral reimagining of the song. Here is a group who never cover anything without putting their own unique stamp on it, and on their poignant rendition of Roger McGuinn's 'He Was A Friend Of Mine', the lyrics are adapted to reflect how people of their generation were affected by the murder of John Lennon. The mood changes again with the bright, straight forward pleasures of 'If You Follow', a toe tapping travelling tune that contrasts with the sparse, prettily melancholic closer 'The Ragged Spiral'.


Ignore the frustrating 'Salt Breeze', and what we have here seems to represent something of a renaissance for Fowler, whose songwriting sounds more assured than it has been for years. Dan Sealey's contributions are also superb, while Adam Barry's keys add a subtle depth. It certainly puts all the Ocean Colour Scene albums of the last decade in the shade. After hearing the splendid 'Wenlock Hill', you'll know that is not just a mere side project, but a clear snapshot of where the minds of these three musicians are currently at. 8/10



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