Album Review: Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma

By on Monday, 11th March 2013 at 12:00 pm

Stornoway Tales from Terra Firma coverStornoway’s second album ‘Tales From Terra Firma’ is a gloriously eclectic, charmingly elusive collection of songs, which, even after a month of listening, seem to defy any straightforward description. This was my first exposure to the Oxford-based band, and I was instantly enchanted by their consciously artistic, intellectual approach to folk pop. The album is, on first glance, a light and lively collection of love songs, whose musical and emotional intricacies come to light only very slowly, over the course of several listens.

Opening track ‘You Take Me As I Am’ immediately displays singer/songwriter Brian Briggs’ clear, expressive singing voice as well as his propensity for elegant and poignantly romantic lyrics. One of the most achingly beautiful moments on the album appears in this first song, as Briggs sings, “and after we were married / we went to our white stone cottage / and you took your simple dress off / and your tears fell in my eyes / as we were overcome with wonder at the love around us”. It takes a certain level of emotional authenticity to pull off such a blatantly sentimental lyric, and Stornoway achieve it without any sense of irony or mawkishness in either the singing or the instrumental parts.

Unique instrumental arrangements are a hallmark of Stornoway’s musical style, and they are found in every track on ‘Tales From Terra Firma’. The band very perceptively use instrumental effects to invoke a sense of place and time, even where the setting isn’t specifically mentioned in the lyrics, for example, the wailing guitars and shimmering dulcimer in the minor-key ‘Farewell Appalachia’. The album features guest musicians on a variety of instruments, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ouin plays two instruments, qanun and mbira, whose names I had to Google to find out exactly what they were. (For more information on this, see this previous Q&A we did with bassist Oli Steadman.)

Lead-off single ‘Knock Me on the Head’ (reviewed earlier here; video here) is the catchiest and most pop-oriented song on the album, though again the lyrics, by Ouin in this case, are quite complex. ‘Hook, Line, Sinker’ strays from Stornoway’s typical folk-pop into a more ambient, blurred kaleidoscope of vibrant electro sound.

My favorite track on the album, ‘The Great Procrastinator’, is a repository of Briggs’ clever lyrical metaphors (I could literally quote every line in the song as an example). The emotional tone is reflective, but the song grows from a gentle croon to a full-blown pub sing-along over the course of its three verses. The ever-so-slight jazz tinge in the woodwinds and piano keep the song feeling light and jaunty, and the slow dynamic build to the end of the song is exquisitely executed in every aspect.

The final track on the album, ‘November Song’, is the simplest and most purely folk in terms of arrangement: solo voice and guitar. Its earthy lyrics are offset once again by purity of Briggs’ singing voice, and the band wisely resisted adding more instrumental ornamentation than was needed for this wistful tune.

For those of us who are keen on musical analysis, ‘Tales From Terra Firma’ is a treasure trove of diverse sonic gems. The robustly erudite lyrics compare to Neil Finn of Crowded House, while the musical orchestration and English-folk style call to mind the classical compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Less esoterically-inclined listeners may not relate to those comparisons, but they will certainly still be touched by the natural beauty and earnest romanticism in this set of songs.


Stornoway’s sophomore album ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ is out today on 4AD.

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6 Responses

9:17 pm
12th March 2013

RT @Jonchapman8: 9.5/10 : Album Review: Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma via @tgtf

10:30 pm
12th March 2013

RT @Jonchapman8: 9.5/10 : Album Review: Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma via @tgtf

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[…] latest album released in the spring, ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ (Carrie’s review here), being performed in their hometown of Oxford on this year’s Valentine’s Day […]

[…] at work since releasing second full-length album ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ in March (reviewed by Carrie here). They’re gearing up to release a new mini-LP next month, ‘You Don’t Know […]

[…] ‘Tales from Terra Firma’, their wonderful album released in March. (Carrie reviewed it here.) It really gives a great insight on how much blood, sweat and tears it takes to write and record an […]

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