Mick wasn't happy...
Is Nick Talbot is trying to shoo away the swarm of Nick Drake comparisons attracted by his previous output under the Gravenhurst moniker with 'Fires in Distant Buildings'? At least the crunching, cranked-up power chords that frequently disrupt the sinister, Tortoise-goes-organic crawl of the defiantly plugged-in opening track â€˜Down Riverâ€™ couldnâ€™t be further removed from the tragic Tanworth-in-Arden troubadourâ€™s trademark bucolic backdrops if they sported spandex and wailed assorted nonsense about dragons and wizards at the top of their lungs.
Itâ€™s not the last of amped-up surprises here. Although both Gravenhurstâ€™s stunning debut 'Flashlight Seasons' and its equally impressive mini-LP successor 'Black Holes in the Sand' offered hints that the folkie format may not be nearly enough to contain Talbotâ€™s vision, nothing could have prepared for the relentless chug of â€˜The Velvet Cellâ€™. Razor-sharp guitars and Talbot's hitherto hidden pop chops to the fore, it sounds not unlike the chuffing Strokes, albeit with a ghost on vocals, a percussionist well versed in the 'motorik' masterworks of Can's human drum machine Jaki Liebezeit in charge of the engine room and a sizzling coda of dueling guitars worthy of top notch Crazy Horse to wrap things up with.
As radical a departure from the familiar fingerpicking formula that 'Fires in Distant Buildings' initially seems, a closer listen reveals plentiful reserves of the mesmerizing, unique magic that has lifted Gravenhurst miles above his fellow minstrels. The ever-present sense of peculiar dread, made all the more disquieting by Talbot's hushed way with rocking the mic, is well and truly present, as the striking juxtaposition between the prettiest of tunes and most disturbing of lyrical concerns. This is taken to previously unscaled heights here on 'Animals', which weds a gracefully lilting melody to an unsettling account of increasingly delusional instability, with bursts of shrieking feedback gradually drowning the circling chord progression as the protagonist inches closer to full-blown madness.
The acoustic instruments are eventually whipped out with predictably peerless results on 'Nicole', a breathtakingly beautiful song evolving with the pace and delicacy of a leaf drifting in the breeze, and the superb â€˜Cities Beneath the Sea', a sparse folk-waltz that arrives packing a wheezing organ part that could well have been lifted directly from any B-movie moment when Dracula stirs awake in his coffin.
Elsewhere, the dubwise one-chord reprise of 'The Velvet Cell' offers a mouthwatering treat to all the drone fiends out there with its Neu!-esque repetition, and even if the hypnotic post-rock levitation of the ten-minute epic 'Song from Under the Arches' runs out of steam a few minutes before the finish line there are no such worries with the equally lengthy closer 'See My Friends', which manages to gallop to the final distorted chord with all its charms intact by pushing its steadily accelerating drone-drenched racket towards an exhilarating chaos worthy of the Velvet Underground (although itâ€™s dread-filled atmosphere would be more at home in the darkness of the spookiest forest recesses than the litter-strewn streets of NYC).
Folkdronica? Post-folk rock? Whatever you call it, 'Fires in Distant Buildings' is an astoundingly surefooted lesson in expanding ones musical horizons that defies categorization as much as it deserves your undivided attention. This is inflammable stuff that leaves Talbotâ€™s nu-folk compatriots gazing at the rapidly disappearing taillights of the Gravenhurst mobile.