The follow-up to last year’s Trysting Tree EP (the tracks of which all appear here), the sleeve echoing the title of David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, this is the album from the north-west quartet which, hopefully, will provide lift-off to getting the far wider acclaim they deserve.
Vocally fronted by guitarist Pete Cunliffe and Cherlene Walmsley, who share the lyric credits, with Paul Cunliffe on bass and David Windsor on violin, they’re joined on various tracks by Merry Hell’s John Kettle, who also produced much of the material and contributes both bouzouki and programmed drums.
Sung by Walmsley and anchored by Windsor’s fiddle, it opens with a Cunliffe track from the EP, ‘Silver Darlings’, a shantyish number that tells of the hardships of a small fishing community near Wick in the late 19th century faced with dwindling stocks of herrings, the silver darlings of the title, the chorus calling them to their nets.
Striking another socioeconomic note, Cunliffe takes over for ‘There Is A Seam’, the fingerpicked guitar, bass and fiddle affording a suitably moody backdrop to a song about the Lancashire coalfields during the bitter struggle between the miners and the Thatcher government in the 80s as he sings how “The pits and the people, they are the same.”
Again underscoring their ability to craft a memorable and infectious chorus, Walmsley’s ‘Twenty Thousand Feet’ takes a romantic turn for a song about the giddy feelings of falling in love and the sense of finding home. Then it’s back to a protest undercurrent for Cunliffe’s ‘Haul Away’, a fiddle-led swayalong shanty sung in the voice of a young Bridgewater lad press-ganged into taking the King’s Shilling, saving his galleon when it was attacked by Spanish ship only to drown, his tale narrated by his ghost back in the local inn.
The EP title track, penned by Cunliffe and sung by Walmsley, another brooding number, featuring Jan Hough on bodhran ‘The Trysting Tree’ draws on the tradition of how certain trees were chosen as meeting places to arrange and finalise such things as sealing truces or exchanging prisoners, the song sung in the voice of the tree, witness to historical record.
The tempo and mood take a sprightlier turn in the Walmsley-sung ‘Magic Hour’, Windsor’s fiddle accompanying her on a rainy but warm-welcoming journey round a Scotland’s Western Isles in that moment of the day when “the clouds break over the mountains/And sunlight bathes the sea.”
The airy joyfulness is short-lived, however, the track being followed by the achingly melancholic ‘All The Bonny Birds Have Flown Away’, Cunliffe on lead and Walmsley providing harmonies on an anti-war song written for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice talking of loss, of the broken bodies and souls, and the impact of “hell and hatred” on both humans and nature.
With Windsor’s sympathetic fiddle to the fore, the echoey sung ‘Lullaby For The Forlorn’ sustains the melancholia before Walmsley’s equally mournfully-paced ‘Carry Me Down To The Shore’, also from the EP, heads back in time to sing of a Viking warrior’s thoughts as he’s carried to the ship that will be his final resting place and of the Valhalla that awaits.
The album’s longest number at over eight minutes, the suitably cosmic and atmospheric and suitably spacey title track with its nagging guitar riff, ethereal low whistle, contemplative fiddle, dreamlike vocals and choral harmonies finds Cunliffe musing on childhood games and the passing of time, and innocence, as we grow older.
It ebbs into the distance to be followed by the glorious final track, strummed guitar, keys and fiddle taking wing on ‘Murmurate (Safety In Numbers)’, a song inspired by and describing the murmurations of starlings, dancing “in the half-light of dusk/In pirouettes of trust” that, in its line “shall we gather one and all, from factory roofs and village halls, brought together in our call to sing”, delivers a metaphorical message about the strength of solidarity. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, When We Were Astronauts has its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground, make space for it in your CD constellation.
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Artists’ website: www.visionthingband.com
‘The Trysting Tree’: