Every so often a record or a band comes along that changes the face of popular music. More so it's the case that the record buying public is subjected to inane rubbish foisted upon us by greedy executives, desperate to make the next dollar out of the unsuspecting teenagers in provincial towns all around the world; without a care for quality, longevity or love. This is sadly the truth, and it is all too common.
However, it's not always so clear cut. It's not always so black and white. Every once in a while a hidden gem manages to slip in quietly, almost un-noticed, unheralded and unassuming. And that is what is so thrilling about music, It can throw a perfect collection of songs in your direction at any moment...when you are least expecting it. And this is exactly what has happened with the new album from Clayhill, it has slipped silently, and with an element of stealth under the radar. I don't need to tell you that lack of exposure is never an indicator of lack of quality in these fashion lead days, but merely a sign of the poor taste of programmers and playlisters throughout the world of the media.
'Small Circle', a soothing, soulful, country-folk offering is overwhelmingly atmospheric, it warms you like that late night bourbon warms you as it hits the back of your throat and burns before easing you into the warm embrace of gentle inebriation. It's distinctly mellow, yet upbeat in just a subtle way. Lyrically it hints at melancholia, yet peel back the layers and you'll find that this is tempered with a hopeful slice of optimism. This is also reflected musically in the major/minor key transpositions. It isn't an over the top record and certainly isn't over-laden with studio trickery, not so much lo-fi, but stripped back, tenderly simplistic.
Band members, Ted Barnes and Ali Friend worked together with Beth Orton, and that in itself is a useful reference point. The shimmering and gliding nature of her offerings is also evident here, listening doesn't necessarily require a great deal of effort, but once you invest even the slightest amount you'll find a great deal more than on initial experience. Scratch the surface of Clayhill and you will find so very much more...
'Alpha Male' opens proceedings, and does it's best to set the scene for the album, hints of electronica provide a sturdy enough platform for the delicately euphoric quasi-epic. Thrillingly understated brass inserts make the overall sound complete. Followed closely by 'Northern Soul' (note: not a reference to Wigan Casino All Nighters) we find the album settling down to a form and a thread that stays with us throughout the record. A keen acoustic strum, ornamented with luxurious but simple licks and trills. Perhaps the greatest accolade that can be paid to a rhythm section is that you never noticed them - it's not really their job to be heard, but to provide a solid bedrock, a firm foundation for the melodic and lyrical layers to be heard upon. And that is exactly what we have here. Unobtrusive, yet clearly defined, it's obvious that song writing not only extends to what the average man on the Clapham omnibus may hear, but much deeper into all levels of the recording process. This is clearly evident in 'Moon I Hide', it is again an acoustic yearner, gentle insecurities are exposed and laid bare amongst the surges of both crash and ride cymbals. Musically this song flows like a tide, an example of lyrics and music matching perfectly.
'Even Though' gently washes over the listener, bathed in luscious strings and exuding an aura of resignation it still manages to leave you feeling positive, as though anything is possible.
"Even though they say that love is dead, I just don't believe it. It just cut its cord and fled..."
Perhaps the highlight of the album is the delightful 'Grasscutter' - which was released as a limited edition 7" earlier this year. There is a certain euphoria intrinsically linked with the song. The lyrics tell of the empowerment of individuality, the self belief is obvious. In my world I am king.
"How do I feel? - I embrace my destiny,
How do I feel? - I feel like me..."
'Afterlight' and 'End Refrain' provide a perfect ending to a sublime record. Both are low tempo, delicate paeans to the yearnings of love, and to the loss of it. It's stunning, it's mesmerising, it's hypnotic, it's enchanting, it is purely and passionately beautiful.
'Small Circle' may be a slow burner, it may be a grower, but if you invest a little time, it may well become an ever present on your playlist. And trust me on this one, it's worth it.
File under 'Perfect'.