Album Review: Christopher Paul Stelling – Songs of Praise and Scorn

By on Thursday, 2nd February 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Neo-folk has always been a bit of a curiosity: contradictory at times and, from a purely objective point of view, you would guess that by now anyone foolish enough to wander back in to that ramshackle boathouse would find that the (combustion engine-fearing) ship had sailed. But, there is evidently a perception of a demographic with an unquenchable thirst for a technophobic troubadour, and here he is. Christopher Paul Stelling, just a man, with a guitar, again…

To give ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ its due, it is a definite break from the UK folk revival (Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, etc.) and his technique on the acoustic is largely unparalleled (think John Fahey, Newton Faulkner, Jose Gonzales, even back to Skip James). From the off, ‘Mourning Train to Memphis’ drives through an agile arpeggio where Stelling becomes just a narrator to the sound of a road story; ‘Flawless Executioner’ is tinged with Deliverance as the pace builds to a ‘Duelling Banjo’-like tempo. There is an organic bond between man and guitar that correlates so seamlessly, you wonder whether the only jack lead involved in this production went directly in to his spinal column. The tracks ‘Never Been There’, ‘Solar Flares’ (live performance below) and ‘Little Broken Birds’ seem to pulsate with a unified dynamism that powered the critically acclaimed live performances that bought him to this point.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3JA9wWfPlQ[/youtube]

All the ingredients are there: a howling vocal, an expressive guitar and, intermittently, a muted fiddle and the potential for a vocal harmony to really be bought to the fore. It panders to the idea of the swooning preteen being serenaded by a camp fire by a man who should probably be on some sort of register. It is this insistence on creating a paperback romance that leads to the rest of the instrumentation, beyond a lonely bass drum, being largely overlooked. There are points, such as on ‘King is Dead’ and ‘Ghost Ship’, when the harmonic vocals are mixed so timidly that you would think Simon had had another domestic with Garfunkel and taken a tambourine to the face. Its situational appeal means something will always be lost in recording, but it is only on ‘True Leviathan’, with its clipped coxswain’s rhythm and eerie vocal layers, that the production actually adds something to the final package.

Some may lock themselves away for 6 months with only this album for sustenance; others may think ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ is just a tough shot of hobo ramblin’ and a decent chorus away from something special. Either way, what is undeniable is that, in true road man style, his eventual recording has probably not added to the story that precedes him and, unfortunately, in trying to splice an old idea on to a new market, what has been created may be frequently listened to but rarely understood. If you are online (if?) then check out some of his live performances on YouTube. If he goes on tour this year then it will be almost unmissable. But, if you’re searching for a seminal modern folk album then I’m afraid this is treading water, however vigorously, with the rest of them.

6/10

Christopher Paul Stelling’s debut album, ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ will be released on 21st of February through Mecca Lecca Recording Company. His debut single ‘Mourning Train to Memphis’ can be streamed and downloaded for free below. Those pre-ordering the album from his Bandcamp will receive an instant download prior to the actual physical release date.

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