An album of real stature and verve.
I like Ed Harcourt. I actually liked him before I'd heard his records. He's got a likeable sort of name. Even his non-appearance at last years Metropolis festival failed to dampen my enthusiasm. And what's more, when I got round to listening to his records, I found that I really liked them. Especially this one. This one's a belter.
As usual with singer songwriters, even ones that you can't help liking, musical influences are fairly easy to pin point. And it's no different with this lp. In fact I can draw up a list of names as long as your arm. The Buckleys, pere en fils, Big Star, Tom Waits, Mike Scott, Beatles, Scott Walker, maybe even a soupcon of Jacques Brel. There, see? A list of names as long as your arm.
I hope, however, that the slightly flippant introduction to this review won't put you off "Strangers". As I said, it's a belter. All the ingredients, whether it's the delivery of the vocals or the arrangements and the instrumentation of the songs themselves, fuse together to present an album of real stature and verve. Yes, that's the word I wanted, verve. And spirit. "Strangers" is a clever album, but its one that is straight at your throat as well. There is always a note of unnerving honesty in Ed Harcourt's songs, however delicate the sonic package they are wrapped in. Take a song like "Trapdoor". A delicate acoustic ballad will be the first thing that will register, yet this silvery web of a song contains some incredibly memorable and quite harrowing imagery. Read this if you don't believe me.
"On a summer night I took a walkOut in the fields where the grass snakes hideSix years old tall as a chairFound the trapdoor hidden from sightFell into the blackness seemed like hourI hit the ground on a sea of skullsThere was no treasure, just stolen souls Taken years ago down this endless hole"
As well as lyrics of considerable force, "Strangers" is lent almost a theatrical quality by the manner in which the vocals are delivered. It's theatrical, in the sense that the songs are almost confessional asides, sotto voce, to the audience. He's obviously spent a lot of time theorizing over the odd pint. The songs themselves, however, are far from being bar room soliloquies, in that they never really play the bathos card. There is a lot more light and shade inherent in the music; the lean, taut arrangements don't allow flabby last orders meandering. "Music Box", (a case in point), finds Harcourt singing in a soft, deliberately low key way; quietly, insistently, allowing the imagery inherent in the lyrics to take hold. Then there is a cracking, sharp, percussive snap into the song's chorus that really takes you by surprise. A cracked whispering voice, again in contrast, brings the song to a halt. "Open Book" is a bar room waltz, almost choral in its vocal progression with an inspired, Buckley-esque bar lament alongside, all elegiac piano swirls and swoops coupled with lonely lad lyrics and an ending reminiscent of Klaus Dinger's "Lieber Honing '81" to boot.
There are some gloriously heartfelt stomps, "Child of the 70s" for example, is a beautiful, clear running brook of a track. Breathless lyrics give an account of Mr. H's early life which could, given the piano led setting, descend into Coldplay's "wither lady" limp dick nonsense, but is actually very uplifting. "Loneliness" is Johnny Keats wailing and gnashing his teeth atop of Skiddaw in the midst of a gale. It is almost possible, (if you're in the right frame of mind), to create a Goth anthem out of this.
So there you have it. You know what I think. It is pointless for me to add anything further apart from the obvious statement that it's Ed Harcourt's best album to date. And, amongst the current slew of singer songwriters, folk troubadours and retro balladeers, an album worthy of your consideration, I'd say.