Album Review: Beachcomber’s Windowsill – Stornoway

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(4AD)
Released 24th May 2010

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

Despite their name, Stornoway came together not on the islands of the Outer Hebrides but in Oxford. Though it was a shared passion for the Scottish band, Teenage Fanclub, that united founder members, singer and principal song writer Brian Briggs and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Ouin, during Freshers’ Week at the university. In common with Teenage Fanclub, vocal harmonies, guitar, string, brass, and organ sections which reference 1960’s folk-, surf-, and psychedelic rock/pop, such as The Byrds, Beach Boys, and Love, abound on Stornoway’s debut album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill. Five years in the making, the album and the re-released first single, Zorbing, coincidentally share release dates with Teenage Fanclub’s first new album and single in five years.

But interwoven with their acute pop sensibilities, the songs on Beachcomber’s Windowsill are also imbued with sounds and images that evoke both the historical and the elemental. The layers of history and tradition set against the beauty of Oxford’s cityscape, seen at first light or under moonlight, echo through the inspirational mix, with the use of traditional instruments, bell chimes, and choral singing; an essence of Magdalen College Choir continuing their 500 year old tradition of singing in the dawn from the top of Magdalen Tower on May Morning. Though Stornoway also channel folk song traditions that have their feet more firmly on the ground, or on the deck, with both elements of Bluegrass and sea-shanties layered into a number of the tracks. It must be added that the band are also not averse to creating new instruments to supplant the traditional, such as turning carrot chopping into percussion.

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The elements course through the album’s lyrics, but not unlike an Hebridean island the force of storms and tornados can abate almost as soon as they’ve begun, leaving sunlit or starlit stillness and reflection in their wake. Beachcomber’s Windowsill’s tumult is love, and all the vistas through which a heart may be swept by passion and love requited, unrequited, lost, and tenderly remembered. From “zorbing [rolling along in a transparent plastic orb] through the streets of Cowley” in the single of the same name, to anthropomorphizing into a seabird in The Coldharbour Road, via an heartfelt exhortation to disengage people from a life of screens and return them to “free range” on We are the Battery Human, it’s a fantastic, surprising, and beautiful journey through an album that is an enchanted island in a sea that is all too often awash with mediocrity.

Links:
Stornoway: www.stornoway.eu

4AD: www.4ad.com

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