[22 June 2011]
Critics often compare new and exciting musical performers to old ones as a type of shorthand that conveys the sound of the new act without resorting to pure verbal description, which often comes off as clunky and imprecise. So far, pundits have likened the Smoke Fairies to Fairport Convention, because of the similarities in the distaff folk rock musings of Sandy Denny on cuts such as “Storm Song” and “Summer Fades”. Writers also have equated the Fairies with Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane when the Fairies veer into blues rock waters on such tracks as “Strange Moon Rising” and “Devil in My Mind”. And then there are the inevitable associations between the Fairies and Stevie Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac on the mythopoetic tales like “Dragon”. Like the proverbial story about the blind men and the elephant, there is some truth in each of these comparisons. However, what makes the Fairies’ new disc so amazing and wonderful is that the band contains all of this and more, performed with a throbbing urgency and a heightened consciousness.
The Fairies are Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire, two lasses from Chichester, UK who sing and play acoustic guitars. The duo’s voices and instruments harmonize in haunting ways that evoke the ethereal spirits from which they take their band’s name. But these sprites are far from being frail creatures. They are comprised of flesh and blood. The Fairies understand that even enchantment can have dangers and that the mystery of the world does not alter the concrete details of living in the material world.
For example, consider their lament to the days when railroads ruled the land, “Erie Lackawanna”. The duo know wrecking balls are destroying the old houses and changing the landscape, just like the old inhabitants are dying and making way for new, wealthier ones. In an angry voice they moan in unison, “Used to run through the fields to put pennies on the track / Now it’s just big houses with pools out back / They’ll bulldoze this house when I am gone / And no one will be here to sing that old train song.” The narrator knows that times are getting worse as the scale of human interference in the natural world gets bigger and more alienating, but that change is inevitable. No doubt, the generation that saw trains come to the country would have bemoaned the end of the horse-drawn wagon era.
Except life is not so simple. It’s not just that change happens. There comes a point where one has to draw the line. The Fairies use established musical styles as a type of implicit criticism of the present world (e.g., things were better then) and modify them as a form of praise (e.g., things are different now as the world has grown). This is especially true of personal relationships. There are no simple love songs here, even though the disc is drenched in romantic feelings.
Consider the gloomy “Hotel Room”, complete with details about the accommodation’s poor lighting and a bad paint job. The duo sing about “something deep inside” that may be love or it may be something else. The insistence of the musical accompaniment conveys the strength of human desire, but it’s not couched in lofty sentiment. Natural feelings can be a bitch. Time cannot change that.
Just like the way in which the Fairies use musical forms from the past to ground their songs, they also use musical repetition to make the point that the only thing that doesn’t change is that change is always happening. On the glorious “Summer Fades”, the duo knows that the more something slips away, the more we want to cling to it. We can’t hold on to what is, but the duo knows that the future is bound to the past. That knowledge can give us the power to keep on keeping on.