[20 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The sound is intimate, inviting, and cozy, as if you are listening among friends in a candlelit wood cabin in a secluded place. A soft pitter-patter of an electronic rhythm provides the bed for gentle piano chords and atmospheric swells of guitar and fiddle that waft in and out like thunder in the distance. A fragile, angelic voice whispers words of comfort in your ear, and then it happens. The piano jogs into a simple arpeggio, bass and drums crash in, and the voice pleads, “heart, just beat for me… for me”, as the guitar swells become more dense and effects-heavy. After a period of time that seems not long enough, the storm dies down into what is literally an exhalation of a coda. You are reminded of just how beautiful, evocative, and transporting music can be. And you’ve only just finished Track One of Lanterns on the Lake’s debut album.
You will not find a band whose name is more suited to its music, and vice-versa, than Lanterns on the Lake. The sextet from Newcastle in Northern England creates placid songs that glow warmly and flicker, with an easy, alliterative friendliness. Like the name, the music at times seems borderline-corny, but its guilelessness wins you over. The sound was previously established on a pair of well-received EPs. Appropriately, everything’s homemade. Gracious Tide, Take Me Home was recorded in the band members’ homes and, when things got too loud, in the basement of a local store. Multi-instrumentalist Paul Gregory produced.
About the only aspect of Gracious Tide, Take Me Home that was not handled by the band directly was its release and distribution. Lanterns on the Lake signed with British indie label Bella Union. Not coincidentally, the label is operated by Simon Raymonde, a former member of iconic proto-dreampop band Cocteau Twins.
Listening to Gracious Tide, Take Me Home, you can hear the influence of Cocteau Twins in the to-and-fro chorus of “Places We Call Home”, for example, and in the treated, swooning guitars that sweep through sections of several songs. Plenty of other influences are on display here, too. You’ll hear the stark, forlorn sound of 4AD Records and This Mortal Coil in “You’re Almost There” and “I Love You, Sleepyhead”. Singer Hazel Wilde’s voice takes on the languid tease of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on “Tricks”, which is actually one of the album’s relatively more upbeat, shimmery songs. Names such as Cowboy Junkies and Low have been mentioned alongside Lanterns on the Lake, and those comparisons make sense.
No, the elements Lanterns on the Lake are using are not new or novel ones, yet something fresh is still at work here. This is mainly due to the distinct veins of Northern English and Celtic folk music that run throughout the album, present in several martial, bodhrán-like rhythms and chiefly provided by Sarah Kemp’s violin playing. The fingerpicked “If I’ve Been Unkind”, sung by guitarist Adam Sykes, distinctly recalls the pastoral sound of Scottish folksinger James Yorkston. Yet, the song’s coda features that swell of guitars that could have come straight from a Slowdive song, and then you have those pulses of electronic rhythm that come into play on the album, as well. There must be a not-so-clever, catch-all subgenre to be coined here. “Seagaze”, maybe?
Really, if there’s a weak point to Gracious Tide, Take Me Home, it is the very same womblike insularity that provides its best moments. Those sudden swells of atmosphere and guitar effects occur several times over, and nothing else distinguishes itself as much as “Lungs Quicken” does, though “Tricks” and the jaunty “A Kingdom” come close. To call this a formula would give the wrong connotations. Rather, you get the impression this is just the way Lanterns on the Lake’s songs come out. The almost complete lack of mirth is going to rub some people the wrong way. Mostly for better, much of Wilde’s lyric book seems to be based on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, but “Keep On Trying” edges a bit too close to triteness.
All in all, it doesn’t do too much good to pick apart a band like Lanterns on the Lake. It feels like budging in on a closely-knit group of friends that are bothering nobody, biding their time on their own terms by playing their own music, much of it exceedingly beautiful.