Sometimes it feels like singer-songwriters, particularly folky ones, are the only type of musician left on our big blue planet. This is a perfectly understandable development on the face of it—one man and his guitar, with only the strength of his songs to sustain a career in a brutal and merciless business. Who could resist the romantic allure of that? Not many, judging by the recent vast influx on both sides of the Atlantic: Bon Iver, Iron and Wine (of course), Glen Hansard, Fionn Regan. All quality people making quality, albeit woodsy, music. Sorted.
The downside? When a genre is as packed full as this one, finding greatness (goodness even) becomes a perfectly daunting task, and involves wading through far too much sonic sludge to be really worth the effort. On that note, lend me your ears, one and all: Northern Irishman and one time Snow Patroller Iain Archer’s latest is more than worth it. It’s a little gem.
Though the geography element of today’s music has long been kicked to a bloody death by Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, one thing should be noted about To the Pine Roots. Namely, these songs were recorded in the Schwarzwald in Germany (literally the Black Forest), and by heck do they sound like it. They chirp, sway, and creak together like a forest breeze, helped in no small part by Archer’s delicate vocal and picturesque storytelling. Despite its obvious wintery overtones, To the Pine Roots’ friend and family-oriented method of creation has endowed it with a genuine warmth that makes it a splendour to listen to.
Not that you’d think so from the off. “The Acrobat” is so hushed and gentle that it sounds like a childhood whisper, subtle harmonium and gorgeous harmony (sung by Archer’s wife Miriam—see what I mean?) adding only the slightest of textures. Minimalism is very much the point of course; even the eight-minute long “Everest” rarely strays too far from Archer’s slowly strolling guitar and hummable melody. Crucially, though, this particular journeyman has both the songwriting chops and quiet confidence to carry off such a bare bones approach without becoming dry and boring, for the most part.
Granted, it’s not all glorious, original folk brilliance. “Black Mountain Quarry” is frankly a little bit silly, and “To Mend and Move Along” is just dull. Aforementioned “Everest” is also something of a trial after its first few minutes. Thankfully, this song is redeemed and then some by “Frozen Lake”, “To the Pine Roots’” unquestionable highlight, and strong contender for song of the year in this reviewer’s proverbial book.
So what do we have then? Just another singer-songwriter bashing out the occasionally inspired but mostly average tune on a trusty acoustic? Thankfully, no. True, not every song on Archer’s latest is a masterpiece, but every song is nonetheless blessed with the man’s voice, both physically and metaphorically. These feel like real, honest expressions from a songwriter who was once christened brilliantly by a friend of mine as a “musical foot soldier”. That he is. And by god, is this soldier fighting a worthy battle.