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