Monday, June 9, 2008

KQED Music: The Accidental - There Were Wolves

The Accidental's debut album There Were Wolves is notably lacking in the volume department. Where others might shout and scream, it speaks in understated acoustic whispers. But listen carefully and you will discover a quiet delight, full of hushed beauty, playful surprises, wide-eyed optimism, and dark menace. In the end, its muted tones amplify rather than muffle its impact.

The sort-of title track "Wolves" unfolds like a fairytale, using images of innocence to conjur the story of a night out clubbing in some anonymous town. A girl "dancing in a neon cave with a tilted smile and a lover's laugh" is surrounded by wolves who "can smell the blood on the summer air." Then, from this forest of metaphor, we circle back to the real world with lyrics that find beauty in the everyday, as the wolves "drink beer from plastic glasses til they find the way to make the first move."

These contradictions, of strong emotions quietly stated, of light and dark, of traditional fable in a modern setting, are just a few of many wrapped up in this release. For example, The Accidental are a British alt-folk supergroup of sorts, but one formed of individuals lurking so far under the radar that the term seems amusingly inappropriate. (For the record, they are: Hannah Caughlin/The Bicycle Thieves, solo singer/songwriter Liam Bailey, Sam Genders/Tunng, and Stephen Cracknell/The Memory Band. Apologies to any of their lifelong fans.)

In the right hands, such mismatches and inconsistencies become happy coincidences. The album came together largely by accident (hence the band's name) but despite this unplanned conception, and the fact that writing and performing duties switch throughout, the end result is cohesive in tone and structure rather than fractured or rambling as you might expect.

And then there are the songs themselves, based on English folk traditions in structure and instrumentation, but recorded with liberal use of subtle loops and samples, most notably on the circular vocals of album opener "Knock Knock" and the quietly insistent rhthym and backing that creeps slowly into the excellent "Illuminated Red."

But then, just as modern production techniques and lyrics that talk of "the clock radio by the bed" or "the lights on the stereo" threaten to drag you into the urban now, suddenly birdsong trills in the background of "Jaw of the Whale," pulling you instead towards some rural idyll of yesterday. It is a reminder that the whole thing was recorded in the relaxed setting of someone's living room (albeit on a laptop), and that there are no easy pigeonholes here.

And, so, quietly, definitely, inexorably, the album takes you deeper into a world that, despite its contradictions, is fully formed and unique, one that could only be made by The Accidental. As they sing themselves on "Time and Space," the album closer, "To your own self be true."

'There Were Wolves' is released June 3 on Thrill Jockey.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.