We Are Muffy Turn the Clock Way Back with 'The Charcoal Pool'

Photo: Barry Cooper / Courtesy of Tapete Records

The Lilac Time's Nick Duffy polishes up his autoharp and makes a quietly wonderful record with his new duo We Are Muffy.

The Charcoal Pool
We Are Muffy


20 July 2018

In 1978, Vivian Stanshall, one of England's finest wordsmiths wrote, "English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere" as the opening line to his masterpiece "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End". He could have been writing about The Charcoal Pool.

For all intents and purposes, the debut album by We Are Muffy should collapse under the weight of its own tweeness. Let's examine the evidence, shall we? The duo consists of Angeline Morrison of the Mighty Sceptres and Nick Duffy, the man responsible for twanging all the esoteric instruments on all those Lilac Time albums, a lifetime ago. A quick look at the instruments used on the album – autoharps, banjos, and lyres, amongst other pre-Industrial Revolution bits and pieces – would lead one to believe that this record might not, to use the vernacular, "kick ass". But in its own way, it very much does.

I can't remember when it became cool to admit to having records by the Incredible String Band nestling gently against your turntable, but now it seems, if you're desperate for credibility, nothing says "I really mean it" more than dropping ISB references into interviews with reckless abandon. We Are Muffy take that reflected coolness one stage further by actually listening to those records for pleasure, not just for research. Duffy was crafting banjo-lead instrumentals as long ago as 1987 and if you don't believe me, check out "Trumpets From Montparnasse" on the debut Lilac Time album as proof. This isn't hipster cool. This is sincere.

Imagine the good bits of Belle and Sebastian with all the drums and electrically powered stuff removed and replaced by thumb pianos. That's the ballpark we're dealing with here. Fortunately, all those years beavering away behind brother Stephen in the Lilac Time has ensured that Nick knows how to put a good tune together and this record is positively giddy with them. Nick's plain, conversational voice is counterpointed beautifully by Morrison's plaintive tones. She's a sort of, slightly less breathy Vashti Bunyan. When they sing together, on tunes like "Coloured Pencils", the effect is quite beautiful. Duffy defines the melody and Morrison adds the details. It's lovely.

The album is an Anglophile's delight. References to Ford Cortinas, milk bars, and provincial bus routes abound. Even the album cover, depicting that most antiquated of structures, a telephone box, is steeped in Englishness. As a signpost to a long-forgotten age, the image is perfect. I mean, a telephone box is about as relevant to a modern music consumer, as a ziggurat. Right from the outset, this album dares you to like it; from the low-key sleeve art to the esoteric instrumentation, via the frankly odd pairing of the duo themselves, The Charcoal Pool almost begs you to turn to something a little more contemporary. Heck, all that strummy, Ukulele stuff was so 2008, wasn't it? Well, We Are Muffy believe a good tune is a good tune regardless of what instrument you choose to play it on and this record is a testament to that credo.

There's a nice, 1960s pop flavor to many of the songs here. "Frosted Candy" with its infectious "ba ba ba ba's" should have been a smash for Marianne Faithful in 1966. If you ever wanted to know what the Mamas and the Papas would have sounded like if they came from Birmingham UK and there were only two of them, then "Black Attracts Heat" should put your mind to rest.

The Charcoal Pool could have been recorded at any time between 1964 and today. It could only have been recorded in Britain, however. Aside from the Incredible String Band, this record tips its hat to Tyrannosaurus Rex, Shirley and Dolly Collins, and Kevin Ayers, but it never stoops to mimicry. It's as comforting as your favorite sweater and just as warm. If a line like "if you squish blackberries, they'll stain your fingertips blue" from "Strange Admixture", makes you smile and not reach for a copy of Slayer's Reign in Blood CD, then this is most definitely for you. It's a beautiful, slow burner of an album which would make you feel homesick for Merrie-olde England, even if you were born in Azerbaijan. Hopefully, it's so out of step with whatever is in the pop charts at the moment; it'll become a real alternative smash and be bought in armfuls by contrarians and refuseniks. I doubt it. But it's still a great record.






'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.