Haunting, surreal folk rock both "down home" and "outer space".
When Turin Brakes’ eighth album We Were Here first crept its way into my earphones I was enchanted by two things: the guitar work and the unconventional voice of the lead singer. That voice sounds like it belongs to a veteran female country music singer who has ripped out the best of Janis Joplin in her day before settling into the comfortable folk rock groove that Turin Brakes cultivates so well. Of course, Turin Brakes fans will easily point out that the voice doesn’t belong to a veteran female country singer… or any female at all, but to a guy named Olly Knights who serves as on half of the core of the band, along with fellow acoustic guitarist Gale Paridjanian.
The mere fact of being “Unconventional” or even “Strange” isn’t quite enough to sell records or attain the acclaim Turin Brakes has since right around the turn of the century. Knights’ voice is haunting and skilled with a smooth, yet occasionally scratchy and folky bend that sounds straight out of the Appalachian heartland… although the duo hails from Balham, London, England. Musically, the sounds on We Were Here range from the near country sounds of the opening track, “Time and Money” to the trippy psychedelic turn on “Blindsided Again”. The multitude of layers in the repertoire of this ostensible acoustic duo can be attributed, in part, to their expanded band, consisting of Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). However, that is only part of the story, especially when “Blindsided Again” lives up to its name and shatters into a wellspring of psychedelic jams that takes the masterful production of Ali Staton and Turin Brakes themselves to keep together and listenable.
Yet as soon as “Blindsided Again” ends, the band slides right back into the acoustic “Part of the World”, which is so straightforward and deceptively minimalist that one can picture it being played around a campfire up until the musical break that carries the tune soaring to a crescendo. There is no dearth of experimentation on We Were Here and while the band adheres closely to their “folk rock” sensibilities throughout, no two songs sound quite the same. One example is their use of a brass section on the poppy and addictive “Guess you Heard” which, in turn, gives way to yet another slow-paced acoustic track called “No Mercy”.
Turin Brakes’ lyrics range from the optimistic and hopeful to the depressed and sorrowful, yet always with a certain surreal oddity to the entire proceedings. “Sleeper” is a sad alt-country tune about having to wake up and face the world when “sleeping is easier”. Knights’ voice gives us a creepy, nearly delta-blues sounding cry of “I’m dealing with the devil, I’m all alone on my ship” but then elicits a universal “WAIT WHAT?” when he immediately follows that line with “I’ll join the robots out on the pavement.”
While in general, We Were Here is highly listenable and multilayered (especially for a genre that prizes minimalism), there are a few slow points in the mix, both figuratively and literally. “Inbetween” is another country tune with just a bit of blues and alternative rock thrown in to keep it unique, yet the variation doesn’t continue throughout the song, which becomes a bit overly sentimental and nostalgic. “Erase Everything” is another dejected poem with sorrowful lyrics that evoke the concept of “Paint It Black” if the Stones were an acoustic duet. Unfortunately, while “Erase Everything” isn’t really a bad song, it is missing the layers of “Paint It Black” and, in fact, much of the rest of We Were Here. There are beautiful moments in the song, but it’s more depressing than the complete Depeche Mode, followed by a binge on the Cure. The aptly titled “Goodbye” finishes off the album and gives us a new take on Knights’ unique voice as he shows off his range. While there are some more layers to this tune, it is, in fact, one more sorrowful and sentimental track with little real variation in its driving (yet slow) folk sound. In that “Inbetween”, “Erase Everything” and “Goodbye” are the final three tracks of the record, We Were Here proves, intentionally or not, to end on quite a minor chord.
Perhaps a rearrangement of the tracks could provide a more satisfying listen. “Stop the World” finds itself right in between “Part of the World” and “Guess You Heard” and it has the same pensively introspective lyrical style as many of the other tracks, but also makes great use of the blues and science fiction influences Turin Brakes show off here. Knights describes driving his car into space just before the soaring chorus that leads to an actual Theremin solo, of all things. “Dear Dad” comes even earlier in the arrangement and sounds like a top forty country song for most of its run. With its enticing guitar leads, infectious breaks and drawn out words , this fast-paced song is both lyrically deep and musically rich.
The title track might have made for a perfect finale and clincher for We Were Here. “We Were Here” perfectly encapsulates the music and lyrics of the entirety of its namesake album. This complexly constructed song experiments with speeds, tones of Knights’ voice, simple and intricate guitars and even exemplifies their subtly down-to-earth Science Fiction lyrics. If “Dressed in a space suit, out walking the pavement” doesn’t give you an idea of the dual worlds Turin Brakes straddles, then keep listening. This song is a trip.
In truth, there is very little “filler material” on We Were Here and Turin Brakes’ years of practice have culminated in some of their very best and most surreal and complex work. The record might have benefitted from a rearrangement of tracks, but then again, Turin Brakes do cultivate and, in fact, focus on “mood” for much of “We Were Here”. It is hard to imagine that the sad mood the listener is left with at the end of the final song is any kind of an accident.