Reformed British band Unkle Bob reform and return with characteristic charm on third album Embers.
Unkle Bob formed in and around Glasgow University, and the band contains a healthy mix of Scottish and English. Perhaps it’s because of this that, to these ears, there’s an enduring sense of the foreign. Unkle Bob’s 2006 debut, Sugar & Spite, seemed like a perfect summer record, soft and shimmering, almost purposefully lost in a haze of rising heat. Tipped by many for commercial success, the band's songs appeared in television dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy, but after two albums they split in 2011. Singer and main mover-and-shaker Rick Webster revived the name for a crowd-funded 2013 EP, and now the band is back together for Embers.
You may already know that in September the Scottish are going to the polls to decide on whether they should become independent. For many this is a highly controversial topic. It’s probably hard not to feel muddled about it if you’re Scottish or English, because the upsides and downsides of each option are numerous. It’s been suggested from time-to-time that the English and the Scottish do not always get along. More often than not, there’s a jokey and fierce sense of competition between the two nations. Unkle Bob could be held up as a pertinent example to demonstrate that the Scottish and the English do in fact work well together, and that you do not always have to fully understand one another to appreciate the other’s qualities. For instance, I don’t know why “Unkle” is spelled with a “K", and I've always found the very nature of an uncle slightly confusing, a relative at least once removed, with a curious mix of the paternal (or maternal, as appropriate) and the fraternal. I've never understood what makes a good uncle, or the common characteristics. Uncles defy categorization, just like this band.
Much like Sugar & Spite, Embers is an album of mystery; it can be difficult to fully catch the lyrics, but I’d prefer it to stay that way. Rick Webster’s softly-sweet vocals are enigmatic with an overall tone of gentle obfuscation. The songs have a haunting quality. Words come in and out of focus, and if you let the album wash over you, it’s a textured, ethereal experience; the sometimes cryptic lyrics merge into the music to wonderfully atmospheric effect. There’s a grand element of finesse and clever instrumentation which manages to convey the subtleties and fragility of life, without the listener necessarily knowing specifically what they are. For a number of the tracks, special guest Saul Davies (from James) contributes some great 12-string guitar and violin, and Canadian singer songwriter Sarah Slean provides backing vocals and some beautiful string arrangements
The strong opener, “All At Once”, is richly downbeat. Rick welcomes us “to the bedroom”, appropriate because some of the album was apparently recorded, engineered, and mixed in one on Alva Street, Edinburgh, and this record could well be another “bedroom classic." There’s a shadow hanging over the singer; perhaps it’s because of the poor Scottish weather. This seems like an easy (English) joke, but Unkle Bob do seem informed by what’s immediately around them. There are moments in the music when a heavy, grainy texture suddenly transforms into light, effervescent sunshine.
On the face of it, Unkle Bob’s songs seem simplistic, bordering on minimalist, but there’s a depth which can be truly appreciated on repeated listening. The most upbeat is the title track, which has some great fuzzy guitar and very impressive drumming. It’s the most determined track on the album, energetic and inspired, perhaps reflecting the excitement of a new (or renewed) relationship.
More typically, though, the album is dream-like, characteristically obscure, in the spirit of a subdued Temper Trap. “If You Believe” is a melodic downer and “It’s Not Enough”, despite the jangly guitar, is immersed in regret, due to something like the inarticulate speech of the heart. Rick Webster has a knack for a melodic hook, as well as coming up with some memorable lines to summarily express a particular rooftop view. For Sugar & Spite, what stuck in the listener’s head was the young man’s dream of “I wanna get laid/I wanna get played/I wanna walk down the Hit Parade." Embers shows how much the band has matured, because this time the mission statement seems to be encapsulated by the distinctive lyrics of “If I end up content/I’ll have nowhere to go” -- in other words, a marked refusal to settle.
While there’s a certain amount of triumphant miserablism reminiscent of The Smiths, Embers is still somehow a very soothing record. “Out of Style” has a tender vocal with insistent piano, and the rhythmic “Brother” implores us to “Close your eyes/Open your heart," probably a good way to listen to the band. The chorus of “You will forever be my brother” is heartfelt and emotional; I doubt it’s about the upcoming referendum, but you never know.
“Millionaires” is another stand-out track. Songs usually written about hitting it rich try to convey the excitement of a new freedom, but Unkle Bob subvert this so that the idea of affluence becomes thoroughly draining -- “I had a dream we were millionaires/But you didn't even care." Rick sings something about a white class hooker -- or cooker -- on the stairs, and in an alternate version of the line, in the shed. It seems quietly, mordantly humorous, at least to me.
“Feel The Rain” and “Lightning” make clever use of pathetic fallacy, although it’s difficult to know whether the characters in the songs are reflecting their feelings onto the environment or actually just depressed by the weather. In “Feel The Rain” the singer implores us to (presumably metaphorically) feel the rain, as if it’s a good thing after all, and the overall effect is surprisingly radio-friendly. In “Lightning” the singer is literally struck-down -- because lightning doesn't strike twice, i.e., the subject of his affection is a one-off. It seems the trouble with men and women is that we are all replaceable, but at the same time all unique. And while you could, if you had to, replace Unkle Bob with another indie band, it would be difficult to match the indefinable essence of what and who they are -- mysterious, incandescently gloomy, but a band in a spangly talented universe all of their own. An Englishman might say that’s the Scottish for you, and the Scotsman may reply, sod off. But deep down there’s some real love between us, brothers, uncles, cousins, Scottish, English, independent or not. All the rest is stupid politics.