Playing live at St.David’s Church at South by Southwest back in March, Trembling Bells sounded half of the time as if they were the Jesus and Mary Chain of folk, and the other half as if they were a typical chick-singer, psychedelic, English folk rock band. Either the band was making beautiful noise out of one set of speakers and lovely pop melodies out of the other, or one was reminded of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, et al. because of the affected trad stylings and prog rock effects. Well, there’s no trace of the noisemeisters on the band’s latest release. And there is a whole lot that recalls the glorious English folk rock of the ‘70s.
Rather than lament the album that should have been made, let’s examine the one that did. Abandoned Love offers many pleasures. There’s lots of quality in the way the songs are arranged and performed, incorporating a host of different musical styles and genres. Sometimes the band rocks out, other times they break into country blues, and when the mood strikes, they head in a straight folk direction. While all of this has been done before by the likes of Fairport, Pentangle, and such, there’s no reason why it can’t be done again with a fresh take. People still make Soul records after James Brown and Marvin Gaye have bit the dust—just because one didn’t invent the genre doesn’t mean one can’t carry on the tradition. Why should it be different for quasi-traditional music like folk rock?
Trembling Bells do this as self-consciously as Anthony Hamilton or Meyer Hawthorne. They purposely evoke Kris Kristofferson on “Love Made an Outlaw of My Heart”, as well as the aforementioned Fairport Convention on “Adieu, England” and Pentangle on “All Good Man Come Last”. They also swerve into the freak folk of Joanna Newsome and her harp on “Darling”, and the silliness of the Incredible String Band on “You Are on the Bottom (And the Bottle’s on My Mind)”. Trembling Bells are not copycats. They put their own spin on the tunes, but almost every song reminds one of another song by another artist.
The Glasgow artists are most interesting when they rock out, and it is a shame they didn’t continue on bringing the style of their kinsmen the Jesus and Mary Chain onto this disc. The medieval melodies and olde ballads need a bit more energy to revitalize the spirits of the songs. Lavina Blackwall’s classically trained soprano voice could use a wall of sound to bounce off of, and guitarist Mike Hastings’s and Stephen Shaw’s bass playing, even when supplemented by synthesizers, horns, and drums, come off as loud accompanists. This makes what could have been a great record into a very good one.
So listen to this disc for the glory of Blackwall’s voice, Hasting’s guitar solos, and Shaw’s propulsive bass. Pay attention to the clever way in which the vocals and instrumentals change tempos on a dime to evoke different states of mind. Catch the seriousness of the lyrics that boast of conquering despair through a deliberate optimism that stares bad news in the face and goes on. Yes, that’s Jew’s harp poking fun at the burdens we carry that then turns into a kazoo and a mariachi band, whoo! Trembling Bells tell us to let go and relax. All of our troubles once belonged to others, and we can conquer them the same way our predecessors did—through music.