The Rails Tread Familiar Territory Yet Still Sound Fresh on 'Cancel the Sun'
Americana husband/wife duo, the Rails gather together their collective influences and skills on the bright, enjoyable new album, Cancel the Sun.
Cancel the Sun
16 August 2019
Even if you're not familiar with the Rails, their pedigree and combined resumes are blindingly evident in their music. James Walbourne (vocals, guitars, keyboards) has played with the Pernice Brothers, Son Volt, the Pretenders, and Edwyn Collins, among others. Kami Thompson (vocals, guitars) not only released an acclaimed solo album, Love Lies, in 2001, she's also worked with the likes of Sean Lennon and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. These influences certainly wind their way through their songs. It's also important to note that Thompson is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, who are essentially British music royalty (she's also the sister of singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson).
Normally, making a note of an artist's famous relatives is unnecessary and often pointless, but the influence of Thompson's famous parents is impossible to ignore. She's not by any means coasting on her name, but even a brief sample of any of the songs on the Rails' great new album, Cancel the Sun, shows the profound influence of Richard and Linda. Throughout the album, Walbourne and Thompson – who are husband and wife – infuse their driving, melodic indie folk-rock sound with a healthy dose of Richard Thompson's Celtic-flavored arrangements and dark subject matter. Kami's voice is almost eerily similar to her mother's. If it weren't for the fact that Walbourne's voice doesn't really replicate Richard's, this could almost come off as a long-lost Richard and Linda Thompson recording session.
Fortunately, the Rails are happy to forge their own path while still paying subtle respect to the previous generation. Cancel the Sun is a refreshingly eclectic collection. "Call Me When It All Goes Wrong", the barn-burning opening track, combines power-pop crunch with sweet harmonies and a galloping beat, not to mention an irresistible, hook-filled chorus. Veteran producer Stephen Street (the Smiths, Blur, the Cranberries) offers a deft hand here, keeping the sounds fresh but not slick or gimmicky.
Walbourne and Thompson – who play nearly all the instruments, save for Rob Walbourne's drums and some occasional synth, bass, and piano by Street and others – are equally adept writing about love as well as urgent global issues. "Save the Planet" sounds, in title, like an overly simplistic plea for environmental action, but the couple gives the song a smirking, nihilistic push with the chorus offering a simple solution: "Save the planet, kill yourself / It's the least that you could do." On the dark rocker "The Inheritance", Walbourne accepts the doomed state of a relationship. "I've made an appointment with a heartache," he sings. "My head says run / My heart says stay."
While Cancel the Sun tends to stay within somewhat predictable – yet highly enjoyable – arrangements, there are moments when curveballs are thrown and produce jarring yet pleasant results. "The Dictator" is an oddly beautiful ballad featuring soaring harmonies against a baroque Mellotron. On the country-tinged "Something is Slipping My Mind," lost love is expressed through a subtle arrangement of acoustic guitar, percussion and keyboards to produce a sumptuous, soulful result. The ballads are sprinkled throughout Cancel the Sun and nicely compliment the more traditional rock-flavored numbers, like the swaggering "Waiting on Something" (including an unpredictable and welcome reggae shift in the bridge) and the guitar-driven "Ball and Chain". They are all served up with plenty of sweet, aching harmonies.
Cancel the Sun closes with the Beatlesque title track. It's another song with an apocalyptic vibe ("Cancel the sun / Hello Armageddon / Banished to blue / A long way from heaven") that – like so much of the album – combines unique lyrical skill with the vocals and musical chops of a duo who could easily coast on their famous family but choose to create something fresh and beautiful. The world may end tomorrow, but at least the apocalypse will have a great soundtrack.